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Bilingual Culinary School Helps Immigrants Land Restaurant Jobs

At a ceremony in Arlington Thursday evening, ten students graduated from La Cocina, a bilingual culinary school for the unemployed or underemployed.

The culinary job training program holds classes for 12 weeks. The students then complete a four week paid internship at different hotels and restaurants.

The majority of students, 85 percent, graduate with a job at a local restaurant or hotel. Employers of program graduates include Washington’s Sfoglina restaurant, National Harbor’s MGM Casino and supermarket chain Wegmans. La Cocina has a partnership with 30 businesses, which take on program graduates.

Current La Cocina students are all Latino immigrants from across Central and South America. The program is hoping to soon expand its student body to include refugees, military veterans, and non-Latino immigrants.

This graduation marks almost 100 program graduates over 11 graduating classes since its inception in 2014. Patricia Funegra, La Cocina’s founder and CEO, was inspired after volunteering in 2012 at DC Central Kitchen, which trains low-income people for cooking careers.

“I just fell in love with the model and how the program was transforming lives, but at the same time I thought, ‘Oh my god Latinos are already in kitchens and they are not receiving this training,” said Funegra.

The graduates receive three certificates degrees after completing the program —  in culinary arts workforce development from Northern Virginia Community College, in food safety from the National Restaurant Association, and in food allergy prevention.

Students walked into their graduation ceremony at Ballston’s Mount Olivet Methodist Church to Pharrell’s “Happy” before listening to speeches that touched on the importance of hard work and perseverance.

“It wasn’t easy for you to get here,” said Daniela Hurtado, La Cocina’s program manager. “Each of you had a goal, each of you had a vision, and you gave it your best.”

One graduate, Jose Cordova, originally from Peru, shared his experience at La Cocina during the ceremony.

“Standing up every morning and coming here was hard,” he said. “But we [did not] give excuses and we are not to give it now nor ever.”

For Cordova, who will be working at Crystal City’s Hyatt Regency hotel, the classroom became his home and the professors were like family.

Another graduate, Luisa Gil, who was born in Honduras but immigrated to the United States nine months ago, feels very connected to the other students in the program. She told ARLnow.com that she’s excited to start a new challenge as a Sfoglina chef.

“Everyday I have to learn many, many things. I have to be at the same level as my coworkers, improving my skills and learning or discovering new ingredients and techniques,” Gil said.

The ceremony concluded with a reception of American, Mexican and Peruvian food made by the 12th class in the program. Throughout the program, as food is prepared and graded, it is boxed up and donated to shelters and affordable housing units.

“It’s kind of a circle of sustainability using those resources to feed our neighbors in need,” said Funegra.

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Chefs Beat Out Firefighters in Charity Cooking Competiton

(Updated at 5:25 p.m.) Local chefs walked away with big wins at a charity cooking competition in Clarendon last night.

The Arlington County Fire Department’s finest firehouse cooks faced off against three groups of local professional chefs in a reality TV-style cooking competition where the competitors had 25 minutes to whip up dishes using only ingredients found in the Arlington Food Assistance Center’s pantries.

Judges Scott Brodbeck of ARLnow.com, Becky Krystal of the Washington Post and Chef George Pagonis of Kapnos Taverna sampled each dish before choosing a winner of the round by ringing a large bell, signaling a vote for the firefighters, or putting on a chef’s hat. Chef David Guas of Bayou Bakery served as emcee for the night.

At the end of the night, the local chefs walked away from the Clarendon Ballroom (3185 Wilson Blvd) with two of the coveted “Golden Eggplant” awards.

Arlington County Fire Department’s Lt. Romulius Queen and firefighter Frank Rachal took home the first “Golden Eggplant” of the night with their Southern Style Fried Chicken topped with a homemade barbecue sauce and accompanied by a zucchini pasta with a thai peanut and ginger sauce. All three judges rang the bell.

“That fried chicken, he really nailed it,” Pagonis said.

Queen and Rachal beat out SER Restaurant chef and co-owner Josu Zubikarai, who made Rulada chicken ragout with mushrooms and spicy vegetables.

It was Queen’s first time competing in AFAC’s Chiefs vs. Chefs event.

“It feels good to go home with a trophy instead of going home crying,” he said.

Chef Tom Madrecki of Chez le Commis took home the second “Eggplant” with his caramelized onion soup with buttermilk, accompanied by homemade bread with butter. He earned the votes of two out of the three judges for his simple but flavorful soup.

Cooking with only the food in AFAC’s pantry was a challenge, Madrecki said.

“It’s reflective of what thousands of Arlington families have to do every day, so it’s very rewarding,” he said.

Facing off against ACFD’s finest brought its own difficulties as the firefighters were both skilled chefs and have a connection to the community, Madrecki said. Votes for the firefighters were applauded by the crowd, whereas votes for the chefs were greeted by good-natured boos.

“We’re the underdogs as the chef because they’re the ones out in the community everyday,” he said. “They’re the ones protecting us so it’s an honor to cook with them.”

Cooking is part of the firehouse lifestyle, said Acting Chief Joesph Reshetar, adding that the firefighters often try out new dishes on their coworkers.

“The firehouse is where they experiment,” he said. “If you can please us, if you can please a group of people, you know you’re on to something.”

Many of the firefighters learn cooking skills from home, including Queen and firefighter Blair Cameron, who made a sausage and tortellini soup for the second round. Some firefighters also work part time in the food industry, Reshetar said.

Despite being the “underdogs,” the chefs walked away with the third “Eggplant.” Brodbeck and Pagonis both seemed to waver before choosing to put a chef’s hat on, while Krystal confidently rang the fire bell.

Chef Jesus Guzman of the U.S. Navy earned the judges’ favor with his “Breakfast in Paradise” dish, containing peanut butter, banana and mint stuffed french toast covered in oatmeal with a sweet potato hash and homemade chicken sausage.

Guzman faced off against firefighters Tony Westfall and Greg Hendershot, who made chicken croquettes. Westfall walked away with a “Golden Eggplant” at last’s year competition, putting him at a slight advantage over Guzman.

“We knew we had a really good challenger,” Guzman said.

The charity event raised about $45,000 in ticket sales and $10,000 in donations throughout the night for AFAC, said Joy Myers, director of development for AFAC. She said the proceeds will feed about 100 families throughout the next year.

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Firefighters Take On Local Chefs in Annual Cooking Competition

Chiefs v. Chefs logo (via AFAC)Three firefighters will see if they can handle the heat in the kitchen as they take on three local chefs in an annual cooking competition and fundraiser in Clarendon.

The Chiefs v. Chefs 4: Too Hot to Handle challenges chefs and firefighters to cook three courses using ingredients found in the Arlington Food Assistance Center’s pantry. The competition will be held from 6:30-9:30 p.m. at the Clarendon Ballroom (3185 Wilson Blvd) on Oct. 28.

“Pick your favorite team and watch three of the area’s most scintillating chefs go toe-to-toe with three of Arlington’s hottest firehouse cooks in a three-course throw-down! This infamous on-stage battle is on fire as each team tries to impress our panel of judges and set their taste buds ablaze,” AFAC said in a press release.

This year, Chef Josu Zubikarai of SER Restaurant, Chef Tom Madrecki of Chez le Commis and Chef Jesus Guzman from the U.S. Navy will take on three different firefighters. The competitors will battle to impress judges Chef George Pagonis of Kapnos Taverna, Becky Krystal from the Washington Post and Scott Brodbeck of ARLnow.com to win the “Golden Eggplant.”

“This competition is going to be a challenge, but it’s nothing like the one faced every day by hundreds of Arlington residents. It’s on us to raise awareness and help AFAC continue to deliver positive results in our local community. As a chef, what better way to do that than to show the judges how you can transform commonplace ingredients into something interesting, complex and unique,” Madrecki said in a statement. “It’s going to be an uphill battle against the chiefs, but no matter the results, the real winner will be Arlington families who need greater access to nutritious food.”

Tickets for the competition start at $100, with a package of two tickets selling for $175. Proceeds will go to helping AFAC feed Arlington families.

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Residents Reminded to Not Dump Grease In Sinks

Kitchen sinkArlington County is reminding residents to avoid pouring fats, oils and grease down their drains.

In advance of the holiday season, the county’s Department of Environmental Services sent out an email reminder to community listservs warning that dumping fats, oils and grease (FOG) down the sink could cause harm to the county’s sanitation system when the substances solidify.

Cooking oil, fat, butter, margarine, shortening and food scraps could all potentially damage sewer lines and the environment, according to DES.

“When FOG is dumped down the drain, it forms large, thick grease balls that clog our sewer pipes,” Watershed Outreach Program Manager Aileen Winquist wrote in the email. “Clogged pipes can result in sewage backups and spills, flooding homes and businesses, causing environmental problems and traffic tie-ups.”

A sewage line clog was blamed for the sewage backup that flooded the Harris Teeter near Potomac Yard, though the exact cause of the clog has not been revealed.

To help avoid backups, Winquist advised residents to pour grease into metal trash cans, wipe down dishes with paper towels and to clean drains “by pouring 1/2 cup baking soda down the drain followed by ½ cup vinegar. Wait 10 to 15 minutes and then rinse with hot water.”

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Restaurant Talk: Cook Like a Pro

Restaurant Talk is an occasional feature written by Nick Freshman, a native Arlingtonian and co-owner of Spider Kelly’s and Eventide Restaurant in Clarendon. Photos added by ARLnow.com.

Rabbit restaurant in ClarendonSometimes people ask me: How can I cook like a pro? How can I make my food taste more like food that I eat in restaurants that I love?

There are certainly some tips you can take home that will improve your cooking, but it is important to note that technique will not replicate that amazing meal you had last week. Nor will the exact recipe, or even the top of the line commercial equipment in your kitchen (though that really helps).

The fact is that your meal was made wonderful by much more than the food. Eating out is as contextual as any experience — it is all about the moment. It was the setting, your mood, your companion and many other things that worked together in concert with the food to make the meal special. That is why we go out, and it can’t be copied at home. Home is for different moments.

Okay, having got that out of the way, let me also throw this one out to you: I did not go to culinary school, and thus I am not a trained chef. I have spent plenty of time ‘behind the line’ in professional kitchens, but I am not a pro. I know how to cook, however, and I know what to look for in food. I also ran these ideas by the real pros that I work with for their approval before I submitted them. Given those disclaimers, take this advice for what you think it is worth.

These are some simple tips and strategies that should help your cooking at home. The most important tip I have is that the more you can approach cooking without anxiety or fear, the better your food will taste. Many people see recipes as intimidating and hosting as nerve-racking. I can guarantee you it comes out in your food. The more fun you have and the more relaxed you are, the more sumptuous your meal will be. Many chefs and cooks chose this line of work because it is their passion. It isn’t ridiculous to suggest that their passion as much as their expertise is what makes their food taste so good.

More Heat

Kitchen fire at Cafe Asia in RosslynI cannot walk by the range in my kitchen when my wife is cooking without dialing up the burner. Whatever it is set at, it should always be higher. She used to put in the oil and the vegetables in the cold pan and then turn on the burner. Now she heats the pan, adds the oil and waits until it is hot. I hear it sizzle and pop, and I know dinner will be good.

Many home cooks are too tentative with temperature. Life in a restaurant is always hot; 350 is a minimum, 500 is lots of fun. Of course, there is simmering, slow cooking and baking, but most of your food benefited from a red hot skillet, grill or pot. Heat makes flavor — not only do you get that wonderful texture from a charred steak, but the marking also enhances the flavor tremendously.

Smoke in your kitchen is a good thing. Next time you ‘cook’ a chicken breast, try ‘searing’ it first: Turn the burner up and wait for the oil to almost start smoking. Drop in the chicken and listen to that sound. You’ll never go back. Just turn on the fan or open a window.

More Fat and Salt

New kitchen equipmentNo mystery and no secret ingredient here. Fat and salt make food taste good, and restaurants use more of it than anyone. Are you wondering what is missing from that soup you made? Is it close but something you can’t place isn’t there despite your total adherence to the recipe? It’s probably salt. Or bacon. Adding salt shouldn’t make the dish taste salty, and in the right proportion it makes every flavor in the dish taste better. Similarly, fats like butter and olive oil enhance every aspect of a dish including the texture.

There are, of course, drawbacks to over-abundances of these two staples — namely, your health. I don’t want to ignore that, and eating at home is a great way to eat healthy, but good food and flavor is all about balance. You can balance out your meal with tons of fresh vegetables, high quality lean proteins, whole grains, and there should still be plenty of room for some bacon to start your stew or a little butter to add some sheen and luxury to your sauce.

Cook With Bones

The best stews and soups are often described as soulful and having a ‘depth of flavor.’ This comes from slowly building the flavors and letting them come together. The best of these start with a deep backbone of flavor that comes from rich stocks. Good restaurants make their own from veal bones, duck bones, fish, pork, you name it. That can be impractical at home—who has day after day to gently simmer bones on the stove? — but basic chicken stock is pretty simple and is a good place to start. Plus, any extra  can be frozen and used to start a later dish.

If you’re not interested in making stock, then you should at least start buying your meat with the bones in them. A bone-in chicken breast will be juicier and more flavorful than the standard boneless, skinless variety. A whole chicken roasted will be even better. The bones contribute a tremendous amount of flavor to your dishes, and they should not be ignored. Once the food is done, bones can easily be removed if you don’t want them on your plate. For instance, if your five-year-old-says, “Oh my gosh, gross!” Ahem.

Also, it is healthier to eat meat cooked this way, as the bones contribute the best nutrients to the food during the cooking process. That’s how I got my wife to start doing it.

Think About the Plate

Masala Express restaurant in Lyon ParkMost home cooks spend a great deal of time with the recipes. They carefully select them, spend a ton of time assembling the ingredients and then throw their heart into making the dish. Then they toss it on the plate. Have you seen any celebrity chef without that classic image of starched white jacket, furrowed brow, narrowed eyes radiating intensity as they carefully study their dish on a plate? Hyperbole? Yeah, a little, but not entirely.

Lots of time goes in to how dishes appear on a plate. What reads as appetizing on a menu should look at least as good on a plate. Think about your favorite dishes and how your face lit up when it was set in front of you. To get your guests — and maybe even your five-year-old — to do that, spend some time thinking about how you want to arrange your food. Line up the asparagus the same direction, tightly packed. Slice the pork and array the medallions around the curve of the plate. Sprinkle some fresh parsley or fresh grated Parmesan around the edges of the plate. Whatever it is, take one minute and think about how to make it look pretty on the plate. Makes all the difference, trust me.

Buy a Squeeze Bottle

Fancy plating 101: tools make the plate. You may not be able to replicate that unbelievable kumquat coulis you had downtown last week, but you can decorate your plate the same way. A simple squeeze bottle allows you to take your dinner to the next level. Even a basic balsamic vinaigrette looks cool when you try your best Jackson Pollack imitation on a bright white plate with some fresh greens.

Sear Then Roast

How did you make it so the chicken didn’t get dried out? I have gotten that question a dozen times. The trick is to use two methods: Cook the meat — and it can be any meat, even fish — in a pan or on a hot grill first, then transfer it to a hot oven. You will nail it every time.

Take the nightly staple chicken breast, for example: Season it well and heat up a stainless steel pan (better still, a cast iron skillet) with some oil. When the oil is rippling from the heat, drop in the chicken breast and leave it alone. Give it a few minutes until you can lift it up without difficulty. Flip it and throw the whole pan in a hot oven.

Nick FreshmanYou’ve even got a great base for a pan sauce when you are done. You’ll never go back, I promise. You can do the same with a thick steak on the grill — char it like you’re trying to burn it into coal and then flip it to get the other side. Pull it off and toss it in the oven. No more dried out meat from the grill. Even works great with burgers.

Want some more tips? Next time you have a great dish or a great time at a restaurant, ask for the chef. Then ask your question or present your quandary. If you start with a compliment or two, you will find them almost universally helpful.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

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ACFD: Distracted Cooking Is Top Thanksgiving Fire Hazard

Normally around this time of year, readers and watchers of local news are bombarded with warnings about the dangers of turkey fryers. Those dangers still exist — see below — but the Arlington County Fire Department says there’s another Thanksgiving danger that often goes un-publicized: distracted cooking.

“Burnt food or food on the stove calls are more frequent than turkey fryer incidents,” ACFD spokesman Capt. Gregg Karl told ARLnow.com. “Distracted cooking is hazardous.”

Distracted cooking leads to almost daily fire-related calls to houses and apartment buildings in Arlington. Most food-on-the-stove calls just result in lots of smoke or minor fires that are quickly extinguished, but some can lead to full-scale fires.

The department offered the following cooking safety tips for the holidays and beyond.

Don’t be distracted while cooking. Guests and other distractions can take your attention from cooking which could result in a fire or injury. Don’t leave any cooking unattended.

Wear short sleeves or fitted sleeves. Loose fitting sleeves can contact heat sources and catch fire.

Turn pot and pan handles away from the stoves edge to prevent burns and scalds.

If you are going to fry a turkey follow all recommendations by the manufacturer for the fryer. Do not use the fryer on a deck or close to a residence.

Have a “kid free zone” 3 feet around the stove or areas where cooking is being done. Keeping the children away will help prevent burn and scald injuries.

On the inevitable topic of turkey fryers, Karl cautioned against a new indoor turkey fryer that seems safer than the traditional kind, but which is susceptible to the same fire hazards.

Karl said the popular Butterball Indoor Electric Turkey Fryer, seen in the video below, can still cause a fire if overfilled with oil.

“We do not believe they are any more or less hazardous than a regular deep fat fryer,” he said. “The same risks still exist frying a turkey indoors or outdoors. We ask people read the manufacturers recommendations and be certain the turkey is completely thawed before frying.”

“We wish everybody a safe Thanksgiving,” Karl added.

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Morning Notes

Paws to Read Coming to Cherrydale — Paws to Read, a program that allows children to practice their reading skills by reading books aloud to dogs, is making its debut at the Cherrydale Branch Library next month. The ‘Paws’ dogs will be at Cherrydale the afternoon of Saturday, Nov. 10 and for one Saturday each month afterward. The program is intended for children from K-5. [Arlington Public Library]

Controversy for Fmr. Arlington Official — Former Arlington Deputy County Manager Kenneth Chandler has resigned as City Manager of Portsmouth, Va. The resignation came as the city council was preparing to fire him for the bungling of the resignation of the city’s former fire chief. [Virginian-Pilot]

Resident Pens Va. Tech Cookbook — Krista Gallagher, a Pentagon City resident, has co-written a recently-published cookbook for Virginia Tech alumni. The book, “A Taste of Virginia Tech,” compiles recipes from various restaurants around Blacksburg. Gallagher will participate in a book signing event at Bailey’s Pub and Grille in Ballston (4238 Wilson Blvd) at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 8, before the nationally-televised Virginia Tech-Florida State football game. [A Taste of Virginia Tech]

Flickr pool photo by Wolfkann

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Whole Foods Cooking Classes Back for 2011

The Whole Foods Market in Clarendon (2700 Wilson Blvd) is gearing up for another year of free cooking classes with in-house chef Michael Kiss.

On the menu for January are two vegetarian classes and a how-to for curried lamb. The classes are held from 7:00 to 7:45 p.m. on Tuesdays.

Seating is limited. Interested cooks are asked to reserve a spot by emailing michael.kiss[at]wholefoods.com with the subject line “Cooking Class.”

See the list of January classes after the jump.

Flickr pool photo by Erin Johnson

Tuesday January 11th
7:00 PM
Get Keen on Greens

Leafy greens are some of the most nutritionally dense foods on the planet, but they aren’t always tops on our favorite food list. Join Chef Michael Kiss as he helps you through the jungle of great greens. We will talk about all of the different types and their flavors and the best ways to make them something we love to eat. We promise the pickiest eaters will soon say more greens please.

Tuesday January 18th
7:00 PM

Fast and Delicious; Curried Lamb with Pan Roasted Chick Peas with Winter Radish Salad. With our fast paced lives we live it is hard to make time to prepare a great meal. Join Chef Michael Kiss as he takes you on a fast and fun ride on how to save time in the kitchen. Dinner will soon be just something wonderful you whip up. How do you make it look so easy?

Tuesday January 25th
7:00 PM
I Can Cook Vegetarian

Are you up for the Challenge? Can you commit to MEAT FREE WEDNESDAY? Well, it won’t be a challenge when you join Chef Michael Kiss on this Tuesday night primer on how to cook without animal protein. Nutritionally complete and filling meals with amazing flavor that will keep even the biggest steak lover in your family coming back for more. A fun way to make healthy choices sustainable; Take the challenge!

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Obligatory Turkey Fryer Inferno Video

Every year around this time, fire departments around the country take to the airwaves to remind the public that turkey fryers are incredibly dangerous and will probably catch your house on fire if you ever use one.

If you’re still using a turkey fryer at this point, really, you’re either a professional cook or an amateur daredevil.

Nonetheless, the Arlington County Fire Department has asked us to pass this video and a few turkey fryer safety tips along, just in case you’re the kind of person who likes your Thanksgiving dinner cooked in the same manner as your french fries.

  • Turkey fryers should always be used outdoors a safe distance from buildings and any other flammable materials.
  • Never use turkey fryers in a garage or on a wooden deck.
  • Make sure the fryers are used on a flat surface to reduce accidental tipping.
  • Never leave the fryer unattended. Most units do not have thermostat controls. If you do not watch the fryer carefully, the oil will continue to heat until it catches fire.
  • Never let children or pets near the fryer even if it is not in use. The oil inside the cooking pot can remain dangerously hot hours after use.
  • To avoid oil spillover, do not overfill the fryer.
  • Use well-insulated potholders or oven mitts when touching pot or lid handles. If possible, wear safety goggles to protect your eyes from oil splatter.
  • Make sure the turkey is completely thawed and be careful with marinades. Oil and water do not mix, and water causes oil to spill over causing a fire or even an explosion hazard.
  • The National Turkey Federation (NTF) recommends thawing the turkey in the refrigerator approximately 24 hours for every five pounds in weight.
  • Keep an all-purpose fire extinguisher nearby. Never use water to extinguish a grease fire. If the fire is manageable, use your all-purpose fire extinguisher. If the fire increases, immediately call the fire department for help.
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To Do Tonight: Spruce Up Your Salads

Via Every Food Fits, we learn that Michael Kiss, resident chef at the Clarendon Whole Foods, will be teaching a class on whole grain salads tonight. What are whole grain salads? Well…

We all know that we need to incorporate more whole grains into our diets, although in practice it can be overwhelming and frustrating. Chef Kiss will showcase light and flavorful vegetarian salads, great for summer entertaining at patio dinners and picnics!

The class will start at 7:00 and run 30-50 minutes. It’s free and you don’t have to RSVP, but arriving early is recommended.

Whole Foods’ free cooking lessons are a weekly event. See some of the upcoming classes here.

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