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Creative chefs exhibit passion, appreciate family history through culinary skills

Students practice cooking for health benefits, learn about international communities through passed-down recipes
Brian Miller

Vigorously beating and stirring, freshman Brian J. Miller Jr. peers into the bowl as hues of orange paint a creamy blend of sweet potatoes, milk, and eggs — part of his usual routine for cooking his signature sweet potato pie. Miller, however, planned this batch of sweet potato filling for a different final destination: a cheesecake. Dishes like these make Miller one of the few creative chefs at Paly.

The sweet potato filling and cheesecake in Miller’s recipe differ in consistency, forming a combination that Miller said complements the final product.

“You can mix the cheesecake with the sweet potato filling and get a nice swirl pattern,” Miller said. “When you make a cheesecake, it’s kind of like jello. This sweet potato filling can balance it a bit better. The texture’s nice and soft.”

Miller said a history of preparing soul food, a staple for the Southern African-American community, runs deep in his family. Beyond his heritage, Miller also looks to the Internet for inspiration.

“Being able to combine old ideas to make new ones is important. Instagram (works) pretty well for that,” Miller said. “Beyond that, I look mostly to (my) mom. She comes up with new recipes now and again, whether it just be her thinking about it or if she finds it somewhere on the Internet.”

Creative cooking offers far more than just unique taste. Miller, a wrestler for Paly, said he became more aware of eating healthy through his journey into cooking.

“Cooking makes my decisions more conscious when adding or taking away ingredients or deciding what to put in certain foods,” Miller said. “That part of being able to cook allows for me to make more decisions on what I’m consuming, which does improve my diet.”

Students, however, are not the only ones with a knack for creating new recipes. Instructional assistant Sh’quil Green said he comes up with unique methods of preparing crabs.

“For crab, usually people boil it or bake it,” Green said. “I do both. I add a lot of butter and garlic and inject it. On every bite, you can taste garlic in it. ”

Drawn towards the competitive aspect of cooking, Green said he always strives to improve and build off his family’s lineage of cooking, as he grew up before the digital age of relatively affordable electronic devices.

“I want to be a better cook than people who were raised with access to a computer,” Green said. “So for example, my mom is one of the best cooks in my life. My motivation and inspiration is to cook as good as her.”

Green also said he  watches television programs to draw inspiration for his recipes.

“The Food Network,” Green said. “I love it. When I was in high school I (went) to sleep watching cartoons and (the) Food Channel.”

Aspiring chefs have the option of taking Paly’s culinary arts classes for their electives, a class that educates students on basic cooking skills and exposes them to dishes from around the world. Culinary arts teacher Theresa McDermott said the collaborative aspect of the class offers a chance for anyone to improve their cooking skills.

“Everyone, no matter how much or little experience they may have, can learn, grow, laugh, share, and cook,” McDermott said. “Everyone is welcome, everyone can find success and walk away with a skill for life that knows no bounds.”

McDermott said her cultural background influences how she approaches cooking.

“As a young person, I was exposed to many different cuisines while growing up in New York City,” McDermott said. “Some of my first jobs were in restaurants, working at the front and back of the house. My father watched Julia Child on PBS when I was a child and he taught me how to cook.  Watching Ms. Child alongside my father, I learned about the thrill and adventure of cooking.”

Ultimately, McDermott said cooking offers much more than just nutritional value.

“Life does not exist without sustenance,” McDermott said. “Food binds communities and cultures together.”

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Henry Liu, Staff Writer
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