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Chef Jamie Oliver's mobile kitchen brings cooking to Sacramento Charter High School

 Kids cooking at one of four mini-stations.
Kids cooking at one of four mini-stations.
Elaine Corn/Capital Public Radio
 Kids cooking at one of four mini-stations.
Inside the Big Rig, chef Matt Harrison down at the end.
Elaine Corn/Capital Public Radio
 Kids cooking at one of four mini-stations.
Jamie Oliver book cover on display.
Elaine Corn/Capital Public Radio
 Kids cooking at one of four mini-stations.
Tre'von Lyle holds a box of produce.
 Kids cooking at one of four mini-stations.
Shania Hayes holds some freshly grown broccoli.
Elaine Corn/Capital Public Radio
 Kids cooking at one of four mini-stations.
Edible broccoli grown at Sacramento High School.
Elaine Corn/Capital Public Radio

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With an estimated 3,000 gardens planted at California schools, and home ec labs extinct, how to get those peas into a pot? That's where British chef Jamie Oliver comes in. His Big Rig — a traveling teaching kitchen now touring the state — roared onto the campus of Sacramento Charter High School for a four-week stint of cooking. 

Capital Public Radio's Elaine Corn got on board for a class that starts in the garden.

It's after school at Sacramento Charter High, but 16 students are staying late. They're picking food from the garden they planted, along with Edible Sac High's project manager, Erika Dimmler.

Edible Sac High is a collaboration between Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and Alice Waters, the food activist chef of Berkeley's Chez Panisse restaurant. This is Edible Sac High's first harvest. The broccoli is for a special cooking class, but not everyone's excited about this particular vegetable. 

"I don't know, I think it's like the little things on top of it, you know how it has those little beads," said student Shania Hayes. "I don't know, yeah, the texture of it in my mouth, it's weird to me."

The kids load bok choy, lettuce, purple kale, spinach and the broccoli into a cardboard box. It's held by Tre'von Lyle, a tall Sac High alum with serious dreadlocks. He's home during a break from college at NYU where he studies drama and genetics. Tre'von broke ground on this garden 18 months ago.  

"It's a place that laid my foundation to go to NYU to learn how to build relationships with people," said Lyle. 

But one thing missing from this garden's possible teaching moments is a real kitchen. Sac High health coordinator Chrissy Knopp leads the school's cooking club. She does the best she can with portable burners in the science lab. 

"If there is a home ec lab, it would be in that building, which is our shutdown auditorium," said Knopp. 

Big Rig brings real world cooking experience

Today, a gleaming bright kitchen is filling in for any ghost home ec lab. The food from this lush third-acre of fertile rows of winter greens will end up on a stove. For the first time, students are going to cook the food they grew. They climb metal stairs into a vehicle called the Big Rig.

Chef Matt Harrison faces the 16 school gardeners. They easily fit into the Big Rig, the name of British chef Jamie Oliver's traveling kitchen. On the outside, the rig is a cross between a brightly-painted cargo container and an RV with slideouts. Inside, it's state-of-the-art.   

Oliver designed the Big Rig for his foundation's Food Revolution USA. He paid for it with $100,000 in prize money from TEDtalks and other donations. The big rig is on a forty-week state wide tour of California, which is funded by the California Endowment. And no, Jamie Oliver isn't here. It's Chef Matt's job to engage the kids and administer Oliver's credo. 

"Does everyone know who Jamie Oliver is? OK, if you don't know who he is, he's most well-known for his first cooking show called the Naked Chef," said Harrison. "Not because he cooked naked, but because he used a lot of naked ingredients. His whole philosophy in cooking is it should be fun, easy and simple."

Harrison instructs the students how to cook the broccoli they just harvested. The broccoli is boiled quickly in water so salty that Chef Matt tells the kids it should taste like the ocean. When it's done, the water's drained off. The Brilliant Broccoli is the color of emeralds.   

Everyone grabs a fork to taste the finished product, but all eyes are on broccoli-hater Shania Hayes. 

"That's pretty good!" she says. 

Considering this broccoli is about an hour old, it's sweet with no bitterness. Plus, there's that pat of butter-delicious so kids will eat it, but without putting anyone's health in jeopardy. For student gardener Krystion Thomas, the vegetables he tended for months are now more than just plants.   

"It's amazing, that, like, we grew it in the garden. It took a few months. And then, now, it went from the ground to our stomachs," said Thomas.

By the time the Big Rig ends its California tour in May in San Diego, nearly 6,000 students will have come aboard for cooking classes. Whether funds become available to build cooking labs at Edible Sac High is anyone's guess. But for the four weeks, Jamie Oliver's Big Rig is parked on campus, with its kitchen of anyone's dream, it will have finished the circle, showing kids how food makes the journey from garden to gut.    


Brilliant Broccoli:


Jamie's Tips: