Palates to Palettes -- savoring art

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    Jason Varney
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Student Jordan Norris proposes a toast, “I’d like to thank the chef for making a meal for all of us.”


“My pleasure,” says Chef Drummond from the back of the dining room. The students applaud.


We’re at Granite Hill Restaurant at the Philadelphia Museum of Art with 16 of Deva Watson’s middle school students from Wissahickon Charter School. Chef Drummond has just served up a sumptuous meal of fresh broiled salmon and seasonal vegetables. Already it’s been quite a day.


It started this morning with a tour by Education Curator Barbara Bassett. She took the children to see three very different still life paintings in the museum’s collection.  


Right now we’re looking at a still life by painter James Peale, from the 19th century. This is the second still life Barbara Bassett has shown us this morning. The first dated back to the 1600’s.


Olivia comments, “It’s hard for me to realize where the light is coming from. If you have a black background. . . .


“ I agree with you, says Barbara Bassett, Curator of Education for the museum. When I look at this . . . .”


As we leave the gallery, I ask the students’ teacher,  “So what are you noticing about your students, Deva?


“They’re a little bit more comfortable when you see a second one,” she says. “And then they’re like -- these are really different. Because you have a 18h century then you’re going into impressionism. They’re like, oh, this is the difference."


This unusual merger of food and art is a Fresh Artists program called Palates to Palettes. The initial spark for the idea came from Deva Watson, who straddles two worlds: art teacher and restaurant server. She was looking for a way for her students to have a fine dining experience and learn how creative and fulfilling culinary careers can be.


As we enter the hushed, linen table-cloth ambience of the restaurant, we are directed to the private dining room, where photographer Jason Varney has arranged the meal’s ingredients into a pleasing tableau.


Several students offer audible reactions to seeing a whole fish laid out on the rough hewn wood table.




Their teacher laughs, “That’s what fish look like!” she says.


The assignment today? Draw what you see. As the noise level in the room moves from hushed to clamorous, Deva interjects with what has become her trademark litany, designed to restore order to the class. The students know it well.


Deva: “Cooks?”

Students: Yes chef.

Deva: Cooks?

Students: Yes chef.


She continues, “Now, what is the main thing you should be thinking about in your painting? What are some main ideas that we have?


After about half an hour sketching their still life drawings, we move into the kitchen to meet Chef Drummond. The clatter of pans and whirr of fans fascinates these eager learners.


Chef Drummond begins the lesson: “Okay, welcome. My name is Gerald Drummond. I’m the executive chef of Steven Starr Events in conjunction with the Philadelphia Art Museum. . . .”


The chef has a story to tell, and the students stand in a circle around the table with a large, fresh salmon laid out before them. He shows his understanding of what some of the students may have experienced in their young lives.


“I’ve been there,” he says. “I’ve been in a home; I’ve been evicted. I’ve lived in the projects. More importantly, I know what it’s like not to have food. I know what it’s like not to know if we were going to eat. I know all about it.”


In addition to demonstrating how to filet a salmon, he talks to them about being open to opportunities, as he was early in his career.


“People say just get your foot in the door,” says Chef. “I don’t believe that. I think if you get your foot in the door you kick it open.”


He describes having goals, aiming high. If you have an opportunity,” he says. . .


“Take it by the horns and run with it. Run like you’re running for your life.”


Later, sitting before a white china plate, scraped clean, I wonder what the students got from their visit. Do they see a connection between the still lives in the museum and the meal they’d just consumed?


Shemar Long has a ready answer:  “I think it’s like it’s a lot of like different shapes, between all the foods so it connects to like having a still life.”


Raiz Randolf has a different take.  


I liked how the still life was so detailed and stuff like that,” he says. “And, I liked the food,” he adds with a chuckle. “And I like how he showed us how to cut a fish and stuff.”


Shemar has more to say.


“The still life over there that Mr. Jason set up,” he says, pointing to the tableau of ingredients artfully displayed at the back of the room, “it was like transformed into like this. All that stuff it was like cooked and on our plates, instantly. It was like amazing how he cooked it, how he showed us how to do all that stuff. It was an amazing experience.”


Did today make an impression, I wondered?  Open the door to a possibility?  It’s too soon to know. But Shemar is leaving with at least one new idea . . . . .


“I would like to be somebody who can cook, like a man can cook,” he says. “Cuz, in the future if I had a wife, it would be wonderful to cook for her instead of always her cooking for me.


Not what you might expect from a 12-year boy. But then, this was not your typical school day.