Free food samples, being recognized when I’m out and about – “Hey, you’re The Food Guy!” – the occasional, though always unsolicited, special treatment in restaurants. But when it comes to true rewards, it doesn’t get more fulfilling than this …
Last week I got to spend an afternoon at Malden Elementary, where fourth-graders had invited me to come talk about what it’s like to get paid for eating for a living – and how they can grow up to do something equally exciting.
School counselor Ditty Markham said the idea of me visiting came about when one boy in class, Tyler Hudson, expressed an interest in growing up to be a food critic some day. But when quizzed about their future career plans, most of the children had limited ideas of what types of jobs were even possible.
They tended to cite jobs that, to them, seemed to pay really good salaries, but were actually on the low end of the scale. We wanted to let them know there are not only higher-paying options out there, but that they could also look for jobs where they get paid to do something they’re truly passionate about.
For me, that’s food and cooking, so over the course of a few hours I talked to them about my role at the newspaper and other job opportunities in the journalism field and beyond. I also fielded a wide variety of questions.
They asked about everything from my best meal ever (The French Laundry) to my favorite chain restaurant (maybe Olive Garden). They wanted to know about the foods I hate (beets and peas) and some of the strangest things I’ve eaten. I answered that one by explaining the delicacy of soft-shell crabs, since they’re in season, but in retrospect they would’ve gotten a much bigger kick out of the rattlesnake nuggets I munched on in Arizona.
They were equally excited to talk about the foods they love and hate, the restaurants they can’t get enough of, even the meals they cook at home. (Austin Stephenson, I want to try some of those pancakes!)
Then they invited me to join them for lunch in the school cafeteria, after which we could come back to the classroom and discuss how we’d go about writing an actual restaurant critique of the meal we just had.
With visions of awesome cafeteria lunches dancing in my head, I jumped at the chance to sink my teeth into some savory Salisbury steak and gravy or spaghetti with meat sauce or warm-from-the-oven pepperoni rolls.
“What’s on the menu?” I asked with excitement.
“Cook’s Choice,” they replied.
So we settled in for ham, turkey and cheese sub sandwiches with Baked Lays, fresh watermelon and a salad bar. In reviewing the meal afterward, we decided it was not bad overall but we did have a few suggestions for improvement:
- The sandwiches were a little skimpy, so a better selection of toppings to jazz them up would’ve been nice. Pickles were a popular suggestion, and I would’ve paid good money for a packet of mayonnaise.
- The watermelon was a hit, but some students wondered if there should be a couple of fruits to choose from, maybe some sliced peaches or chunks of pineapple.
- And we all thought the salad bar could use a little love. Especially with several kids not touching their sandwiches – or only plucking the slice of cheese from them – a salad bar with more options would help ensure they could find enough food to fill them up. There was lettuce, tomato, cucumber and peppers, but no broccoli, cauliflower or other veggies to add bulk. A simple pasta salad would also offer a good second entrée option for those not liking the day’s main dish.
On a scale of 1 to 10, some loved it and others hated it, so we averaged out at around a 5 or 6.
As the invited guest, I politely scored it a 7, reminding the class that you always have to judge a restaurant with realistic expectations. You’re not going to get a Chop House experience at a McDonald’s booth, so be sure to pass judgment accordingly.
“Our cooks may never forgive you for producing about 40 critics who now think they are qualified to judge them each day on presentation, taste, quality and quantity of food, ambiance, etc.,” Markham said.
But I hope they take it all in stride, because this was the most enjoyable day at “work” I’ve had in a long time. And these kids couldn’t have been more interested, appreciative and well-behaved! They gave me hugs, took photos, asked if they could sit with me at lunch and one girl even gave me a picture she had drawn. (Thanks, Kimberly Legg. It’s hanging up in my office!)
“Steven, thanks so much for visiting Malden Elementary. Our fourth-graders really enjoyed learning from you,” Ditty wrote in a follow-up note after the event. “If you are not in a school every day, you probably can’t appreciate the significance of 10-year-olds who were attentive listeners and participants for over two hours. It is rare that anyone holds their interest for over 30 minutes. So, give yourself a pat on the back.”
Actually, Ditty, with three boys at home I know all too well how challenging it is to harness youthful exuberance on a daily basis.
So the pat on the back goes to you and your students!