CAMBRIDGE — On this chilly Friday afternoon in March at Catalyst, the staff is preparing for a post-work crowd that in an hour and a half will fill every seat of the stylishly modern bar, spill into nearby tables, and surround a roaring fireplace. In the kitchen, there is a cacophony of chopping knives, clanking pans, and chatter from eight children ages 6 to 11, as they watch pasta being made from scratch.
“Whoa, that’s so cool,” says Alex Fucile, 8, as a strip of dough is fed into a hand-cranked machine and churns out tiny ribbed cavatelli shells. When cooked, the ricotta-infused pasta will be mixed with asparagus, mushrooms, and a butter sauce. “The ridges will help bind the sauce and ingredients,” says William Kovel, chef and owner of the Kendall Square restaurant. He points to the mound of shells made by pasta chef Andres Arango. “You guys want to feel it?” Small fingers squish the pasta. “Cavatelli helps make the best mac and cheese,” Kovel says. “You can use Parmesan, cheddar, Velveeta — no, not Velveeta any more. That’s what I grew up with.”
Since last fall, students from the afterschool program of East End House in Cambridge have visited Catalyst on select Fridays to learn about cooking and healthy eating. It is Kovel’s first foray into teaching and the students’ first look at a professional kitchen and, in most cases, their first look at an upscale restaurant. In learning about the simplicity of making fresh food, the Cambridge public school students have become emboldened to give unfamiliar food at least one bite.
“I love that the kids have this exposure to the process of food, from farm to table, so they can see that food doesn’t just ‘appear,’ ” says Jennifer Garner, East End House’s food specialist. “Kids have a hard time trying new flavors because they’ve never had it before. Being in this setting, a fancy restaurant kitchen, with Chef William, it gives them an opportunity to try new flavors.”
The cooking class came about when Kovel approached East End House after the birth of his son six months ago. Kovel, 36, who is the Culinary Chair of the community service center’s April 12 Cooking for a Cause fund-raiser, was keen to teach child nutrition. Other chefs, including Tony Maws of Craigie on Main, have taught one-off classes for East End House students but Kovel is the first to teach a series. His was designed around a five-course menu where one dish involved filleting a monkfish.
“There’s satisfaction in meeting a bunch of kids who don’t have a lot of education about local foods and to open their eyes to wholesome cooking,” Kovel says. “Just to have them try asparagus is important.”
The Catalyst classes meet East End House’s aim of an engaging and fun after-school program, says Katie Todd, the center’s development associate. Another goal is to address child-hood obesity through a healthy diet. Garner, who oversees the center’s snacks, adds nutrients into everyday foods. Grilled cheese sandwiches are baked and include sweet potato puree with rosemary and black pepper folded into the cheese. Tomato sauce for pizza is mixed with minced kale. Mashed potatoes have some cauliflower in them.
Kovel is on board with these goals, introducing students to seasonal vegetables for a recipe with limited ingredients that can be prepared in 30 minutes or less. His initial challenge, though, was making the students comfortable. The first time they visited Catalyst, they were too intimidated to speak, their chaperones say. Now they bound through the large glass doors, hang their jackets in the restaurant’s Fireplace Room, wash their hands, and greet the soft-spoken “Chef William” with warmth.
On this Friday, the children hoot with glee when told they’re making pasta. They don’t actually make anything. They’re kitchen observers, with a chef who never talks down to them as he explains a recipe and the techniques. In turn, the kids are so polite that most have to be encouraged to tell him later, when eating at a restaurant table, they don’t like the asparagus or mushrooms in the dish.
“The asparagus tastes different than normal food,” Amyrah Domond, 6, says with a grimace. “But the pasta doesn’t taste like regular pasta. It tastes like better pasta.” There is universal agreement on the excellence of the cavatelli. “You never really find pasta in a grocery market mixed with cheese,” observes Liana Tarte, 11, who arrives at mealtime. Adds Xikiyah Firmin, 11, “It tastes more soft than usual pasta.”
Xikiyah, a fan of TV cooking shows, has taken Kovel’s classes to heart. She encouraged her mother to buy a cut of monkfish in the grocery store because she liked Kovel’s preparation, and she made fresh pasta after another class. “I just followed Chef William’s recipe,” she says with a shrug.
Liana’s mother, Beth Lamour, says her daughter enjoys the visits to the “fancy” restaurant with it’s “ritzy” menu because they complement Liana’s creative streak. “Cooking is not my thing,” Lamour says. “When Liana is feeling chef-y she’ll make omelets, add spices, garlic, and onions. She’s pretty talented in that department. I just stand there and watch.”
Liana, her mother says, has dreams of one day opening a restaurant. Watching Kovel is a great place to start.
The 10th Annual Cooking for a Cause will be held April 12,
6-10 p.m. in the MIT Media Lab,
75 Amherst St., Cambridge.
Tickets are $125 each. More than 38 area chefs and mixologists will serve food, wine, and
cocktails. For more information go to www.eastendhouse.org.