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October 20, 2014

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Education:

For these first-graders, food becomes a lesson in culinary arts

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Christopher DeVargas

Chef Crisafulli instructs a group of first grade students from Robert E. Lake Elementary School on how to prepare some macaroni bites in the kitchen at I Love Burgers inside the Shoppes at the Palazzo Thursday March 29, 2012. The students are participating in a program called First Grade Food Critics which designed to promote nutrition education and academic development.

First Grade Food Critics

Chef Crisafulli instructs a group of first grade students from Robert E. Lake Elementary School on how to prepare some macaroni bites in the kitchen at I Love Burgers inside the Shoppes at the Palazzo Thursday March 29, 2012. The students are participating in a program called First Grade Food Critics which designed to promote nutrition education and academic development. Launch slideshow »

Educators might debate the ingredients necessary for success, but a class of Las Vegas first-graders could answer that question with ease.

Flour, eggs, breadcrumbs and macaroni-and-cheese balls.

After all, they were the chefs. They should know. As one of the first-graders, Jaya, explained, “We got the cheese and put it in there” — pointing toward the flour, the first step in the recipe.

Meet the First Grade Food Critics. Their chefs’ hats wobbled on their small heads and their sanitary gloves extended well beyond their hands, but their culinary enthusiasm matched any professional chef in the kitchen at I Love Burgers.

The first-graders from Robert E. Lake Elementary School visited the restaurant inside the Shoppes at the Palazzo on Thursday as part of a new program created by their teacher, Ben Brown.

A self-described food lover, Brown critiques Las Vegas restaurants on the side. But his motivation for creating First Grade Food Critics really began years earlier during a summer stint teaching at a rural school in Panama.

“I realized just how privileged students are in the United States,” he said, referring to the volume of resources.

Brown applied to Teach For America, got accepted and turned down a six-figure sales job. By fall 2010, he was teaching elementary students at Robert E. Lake Elementary School, located in an older neighborhood two miles east of the Las Vegas Strip.

“To me, it wasn’t a question,” Brown said of his career decision. “I saw the opportunity to have an impact on a community at such a young age.”

Roughly 86 percent of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, notably higher than the district’s average of 50 percent, school officials said.

“These restaurants are not within their financial reach,” said Brown, who’s studying for his master’s degree in education at UNLV. “They come from really different financial backgrounds.”

The pilot program exposes the first-graders to the culinary industry through catered meals to the classroom, guest speakers and field trips to relatively nutritious, family-friendly restaurants, Brown said.

California Pizza Kitchen made the first food delivery, but Thursday marked students’ first journey to a restaurant kitchen.

The miniature chefs-in-training circled a food preparation counter and listened as “Chef Adam” — Adam Crisafulli, executive chef for LEV Restaurant Group, which owns I Love Burgers — imparted culinary wisdom.

The delicacy? Mac & Cheese Nom Noms.

“We put it in flour first because it will help the egg stick to it,” Crisafulli explained as he dunked the macaroni-and-cheese ball.

Minutes later, 17 first-graders attempted the first step, spewing flour and giggles as the appetizer took shape and professional chefs offered advice:

“Be gentle with it like it’s an egg!”

“Remember — one wet hand, one dry hand!”

Their efforts paid off. The Mac & Cheese Nom Noms were ready for frying, and the eager chefs toured the grilling area before settling in for their feast.

Soon, platters of Mac & Cheese Nom Noms arrived along with other appetizers, sliders and milkshakes. I Love Burgers offered to host the class and donate the food when Brown sought restaurant participants.

“It’s a Las Vegas-based company,” said Zachary Conine, vice president of research, analytics and development for LEV Restaurant Group. “We are Las Vegans. A lot of us have kids in the school system.”

Besides, who passes an opportunity to scout future talent?

“Someone here is going to do this professionally,” Conine said, motioning to the students munching on their creations.

But it’s not just about the food: There’s a hidden academic component once students return to the classroom. A children’s dining guide for Las Vegas is in the works, based on students’ food critiques after each experience.

Meanwhile, Brown said the outings exposed children to new settings and role models within the community.

“A lot of them didn’t even know what the Strip was,” he said. “That was really eye-opening to me.”

There’s 57 days left of the school year. Brown hopes that’s enough time for at least four food field trips and multiple in-school experiences.

“Some students just aren’t motivated, and I want to motivate them,” he said. “I only have them for 180 school days, and they have the rest of their lives ahead of them.”

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