Chef’s Training Graduate Jennifer Paulson is the Culinary Director of the recently opened Sprouts Academy in Chicago. The Academy is a pre-school dedicated to “healthy and responsible lifestyle through daily exposure to learning projects, natural living green alternatives, harvesting school-grown food for healthy cooking and eating.” Natural Gourmet caught up with Jennifer to see how it’s going so far . . .
NG: How did Sprouts Academy come to be? Where did you intersect with this project?
JP: I had made the decision to leave the corporate world and follow my passion: cooking with kids. I had just been accepted to NGI when I was introduced to Jason Walsh, one of the founders of Sprouts Academy. He wanted to bring the “green” philosophy to the preschool realm, and I wanted to implement the healthy food and growing piece to the curriculum.
I had Sprouts Academy in mind throughout my training at NGI. My end goal was to build a kitchen where I could help to teach parents and children how to make better choices in the kitchen. Families are so inundated with processed foods that they are eating themselves to death and are still hungry. Michelle Obama recently shared a statistic that, in 10 years, 50% of the American population will be obese. Something must change!
NG: What drew you to this project over others?
JP: I truly had no road map here. I followed my heart as I jumped head-long into this entirely new career path. There were many times after leaving NGI and returning to Chicago that I wanted to dust off my resume and return to the “security” of the corporate sector (premium health insurance, six figure salary, etc.).
But I really believe in what we are doing at Sprouts Academy. We are teaching these children about food from the time they are just “sprouting.” We are growing food and using it in our classroom and our kitchen. Our goal is to encourage children to be “Adventurous Eaters.”
NG: Is the Academy open yet, up and running?
JP: Our school “officially” opened on June 3rd, just last week. We have been doing parent and tot classes in the interim while waiting and WAITING for our license from the State. We have that now, so we are officially up and running. The kitchen is in our Phase Two, so construction of that has just begun.
NG: How is Sprouts Academy being received by parents and children?
JP: Sprouts Academy is in a great neighborhood, River North, in downtown Chicago. We have done our best to keep our name out in the community while we build out our space. We have parents from all over the city enrolling their children with us for various reasons, but I will say, our culinary philosophy is a huge draw. Families who take the time to make “better choices” when feeding their families get incredibly frustrated seeing the types of food served at most schools. We have been getting great feedback and support from the community because we want to not only teach the children, but educate the entire family, about how to make better choices in the kitchen.
NG: Is the Academy getting media attention?
JP: We teamed up with the Kenmore Brand when they launched their first interactive “Kenmore Live Studio” here in Chicago a few months ago. I pitched Kenmore and their marketing team the idea of doing a program that involved getting kids cooking healthy and “adventurous” foods in Kenmore’s demo kitchen. Thus, “Adventurous Eaters” came about. We do this event twice a month.
This was an amazing opportunity for us to tag onto the Kenmore brand launch and the amazing group of Chicago chefs that participate in various demos at the Kenmore Live Kitchen. This originated at the time when we were restricted from advertising our preschool until we had our state license. Kenmore pays for all of the food and expenses and we can offer this as a complementary event to children and families around Chicago.
Kenmore has also expressed interest in helping us as we build out our own kitchen. Our neighborhood Whole Foods found out about our events and asked to participate. They post our “Adventurous Eaters” recipes and shopping lists in their stores after each event and arrange store tours for parents and children. For most families, it’s their first time shopping for agar and quinoa. Here’s a link to our first Adventurous Eaters event.
Bon Appetit found out about us and is going to do a story on Sprouts Academy and our relationship with Kenmore. They are also sharing our story with some of their advertisers and sponsors who have expressed interest in helping us build out our kitchen and support our mission.
I also had the pleasure of getting involved with Share Our Strength about a year ago. It is an amazing organization with the goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015. We hosted a launch party for one of their partners, the Grain Foods Foundation. The event was at Sprouts Academy last month. Again, we were able to generate press by simply hosting the event and marketing to “green moms,” “mommy bloggers,” and the media.
Share Our Strength recently teamed up with Michelle Obama’s new initiative to end childhood hunger by assisting to launch the “Chefs Move To Schools” campaign. This program was launched last Friday at the White House, and I had the honor of being asked to attend! One of our NGI graduates, April Neujean, of the Edible Schoolyard NOLA, spoke at the Share Our Strength breakfast prior to the White House. She passionately and eloquently shared her experience of rolling out the Edible Schoolyard in her district.
NG: The Sprouts Academy space looks quite large and amazing. How will the space be used?
JP: Our space is about 9700 square feet, about 6000 upstairs with 4 classrooms and a large motor skills room. Our kitchen is being built downstairs where we have about 3700 square feet.
We are growing foods in the large windows that frame our facade. We will be filling our front windows with plants, and have a small area for children to grow plants, thus bringing nature into our classrooms, and emphasizing the healthy eating curriculum that we are developing.
NG: What “special projects” are in the works for the children?
JP: Right now the children have planted lots of herbs in their garden, and we are excited to watch them grow so we can start tasting! Many of our preschool students have been cooking up a storm with us at our Adventurous Eaters events.
Our first event was an Adventurous Pizza Night! It was amazing to see these little peanuts chowing down on these huge platters of vegetables like caramelized onions, roasted asparagus, cauliflower, red pepper, shitakes, portabello mushrooms. Raw and roasted, they ate it! Plus, I taught the parents how to add all the vegetables to whole tomatoes to make a delicious and nutritious pasta/pizza sauce. You can find the recipe on our site!
We also had an Adventurous Pasta Night where we packed white beans, ricotta, spinach, and sautéed mushrooms into wanton skins – something super-easy parents can do with their kids at home.
NG: You’re the Culinary Director; what specifically does that position entail?
JP: I need to change my title because Culinary Director seems so clinical. My position entails EVERYTHING. I am part event planner, publicist, sales rep, chef, head of purchasing, teacher, therapist, consultant, janitor. Actually, I am doing basically everything that I did in my former business life except I’m selling and sharing something I love and that I am deeply passionate about.
NG: What philosophical approach will you be following with the food?
JP: We are going to keep the food clean and simple. We are going to do everything we can to use our local farmers as much as possible. Lots of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, limited amounts of organic meats. It is sad, but we have to be a nut-free facility. I already have 3 children with severe egg and dairy allergies. It’s truly amazing how prevalent they are these days.