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Culinary Students Set A ‘Community Table’ To Show Off Food Skills, Creativity In Feeding Homeless

Photo: Shannon Hicks

NHS Culinary Arts student Nicole O’Leary plates a set of the appetizers she and her Community Table partner created for the March 27 event: polenta bruschetta with spinach, pesto, and grilled shrimp, topped with a cherry tomato. In the background is Ryan Rosenberger, plating a set of his food offerings.

A special event at Newtown High School on March 27 highlighted the ongoing collaboration between the Newtown High School Culinary Department and the student-launched organization Feeding The Need.

“A Community Table: Food from the Heart, Nourishing the Soul” was a showcase, of not only the talents coming out of the kitchens at 12 Berkshire Road but also of what can be done with items from a food pantry when preparing meals for a homeless shelter. Approximately culinary 30 students were paired off and challenged to come up with something extraordinary with ingredients found in most food pantries.

The results, as many in the crowd on March 27 were repeatedly overheard declaring, were “amazing,” “incredible,” and “delicious.”

Launched in September 2012 by then-NHS junior Sonya Stanczyk, Feeding The Need is a nonprofit organization that serves as a collaboration between the NHS Culinary Department chefs and advanced culinary students and Connecticut Food Bank (CFB). The program allows culinary students to process, cook, and then deliver food to homeless shelters. According to a bulletin board set up during last week’s event, the program has to date provided more than 17,000 meals to area shelters.

Sonya was joined by Feeding The Need members Trystan Wagner and Thomas Stanczyk on Thursday, representing the organization during the event. The trio answered questions, accepted donations for the program, and offered “solid representation” of Feeding The Need, Sonya joked before parents, friends, and others began arriving at the cafetorium.

The group received about $660 during the event.

“We use donations like that for Newtown Culinary expenses, for things that the Connecticut Food Bank doesn’t provide but that they need, such as olive oil,” Sonya explained. “It does benefit the shelters in the end.”

The evening represented the end of a month of planning and preparation for the presentation of dishes that could all be eaten in a single bite. Guests were encouraged to take their time walking from table setting to table setting, chatting with the student chefs and enjoying the delicacies that had been prepared for them.

“These are all one-bite dishes,” NHS Culinary Instructor Brian Neumeyer said during brief comments to the crowd. “You can see what can be done with so-called ‘seconds.’”

Within moments, guests began their sampling.

Each food offering — appetizers, entrees, desserts, and even beverages were served in the style of an amuse-bouche — was accompanied by a sign that stated the dish’s name, its ingredients (and in many cases, inspiration), the names of the chefs behind the creation, and how the dish could be translated into a Feeding The Need dish.

The Tagalong Chocolate Cakes created by Bailey Smith and Tate Schwab, for instance, were justified through the use of sheet cake that “can be cut into the shape of the aluminum pans and frosted as if normal cake, layers would be stacked until the pan is full, then we would drizzle chocolate on top, and the sesame brittle would be turned into a sesame crumble.”

For Community Table, the pair cut chocolate cake into small rounds, and then topped each with peanut butter frosting swirls, a chocolate drizzle, and crunchy sesame brittle bits. It was one of two dishes the pair created based on Girl Scout cookies.

Nearby, Albert Dean and Connor LeMay were using large spoons to serve Caramel Miso Braised Beef. Their single-bite dish featured slivers of caramel miso braised beef nestled atop a small scoop of crunchy carrot salad. Tempura batter crumbs had been sprinkled atop each serving.

The dish can be converted to a meal for Feeding The Need, the boys wrote for their table presentation, “by preparing a stew of the beef, carrots and the Asian inspired caramel sauce.”

Students were allowed to decide their own menu, said John Carlson.

“We each picked our own dish to make,” he said, while culinary partner Michael Berko carefully spooned a dollop of chipotle BBQ sauce onto a piece of plank steak that had been carefully placed atop a potato pancake. Elsewhere in the kitchen, Nicole O’Leary was putting cherry tomato slices on a plate of her team’s appetizer, which featured polenta bruschetta with spinach, pesto, and grilled shrimp.

While guests moved among the serving areas set up in the cafetorium, many young chefs were kept busy running back and forth. Some were carrying empty trays into the kitchen, before returning quickly with a new supply of offerings. Others stayed in the kitchen, creating more food to be served up. Music played in the background, while a slideshow also featured images of Feeding The Need past projects.

“I think it was a really successful event,” Sonya Stanczyk said April 1. “This was the second year we’ve hosted it, and it was better than last year.”

Representatives from some of the food shelters served by Feeding The Need attended “Community Table” last week, and they seemed to enjoy themselves, said Sonya.

“They were talking about how delicious the food was, and how they looked forward to having the dinners delivered next week to feed their clients,” she said. 

By 8 pm, the last of the guests had left the high school and the culinary students were all back in the kitchen. They put together 17 trays of food, and put them into the Feeding The Need freezers for future delivery to shelters, and then gathered for closing comments from their proud teachers, said Sonya. 

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