Chef Spotlight: Manny Lopez

The “Chef Spotlight” is a bi-monthly blog series featuring chef instructors and assistants at The Sylvia Center.

Walk into any kitchen with Chef Manny, and you’ll immediately notice a classroom thronged with eager students trying to get his attention, “Chef Manny, Chef Manny!”. Meet Manuel Lopez aka Chef Manny.

Manny, 17, has experienced plenty of peaks and valleys since the moment two summers ago, when he was a seedling apprentice with City Parks Foundation high school at the Umoja Garden in Bushwick, Brooklyn. “We taught [kids from St. Nick’s Alliance] things like the difference between composers and decomposers”, Manny explains. “Then, as part of our PD…professional development, we visited an Added Value Farm in Red Hook, where we helped pull vegetables and things like that, and learn about the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the Farm.”

Manny became interested in cooking at an early age. His time on the farm fed his passion for food, but the deepest love comes from his childhood home, where his mother prepared his favorite comfort foods. When he learned about The Sylvia Center’s Teen Apprenticeship Program during his junior year at the Bushwick Leaders High School for Academic Excellence, Manny jumped at the opportunity and signed up. “I thought, ‘finally, this is my opportunity to learn how to cook’”, Manny recounts.

The Teen Apprenticeship Program is an in-depth program that instills long-term knowledge and awareness about healthy food and cooking skills in students, so that they may become permanent healthy food advocates in their own communities. During the first part of the apprenticeship, teens develop basic culinary skills and learn to prepare simple, healthy, plant-based recipes from start to finish. After 60 hours of training over the course of 16 weeks, students are placed at summer camps in Brooklyn and the Bronx, where they are able to demonstrate their newly acquired culinary and teaching skills.

As an alum of the first Brooklyn Cohort, Manny is a prime example of the cumulative and long-term success that the program strives to achieve. Since starting the apprenticeship in January, Manny’s perception of healthy food has already shifted. As part of their winter training, students watched, “Food Inc.” together and learned about sustainable farming, food justice, and shopping literacy. Since then, Manny notes that he looks at food differently. “I don’t eat as much fast food as I used to.”, Manny proclaimed happily. He’s also helping his mom out in the kitchen more. “Now, I help her with all of the prep. Dicing and stuff like that.” His favorite dish to prepare for his family? Tomato and cheese quesadillas with guacamole — a dish that the teens learned how to make during their first week of the program.

This year, Manny has grown both as a chef and a teacher. After months of learning how to prepare healthy, plant-based recipes from start to finish, he spent the summer teaching campers from his own community at the New York City Housing Authority Williamsburg Community Center. Chef Sam, City Program Manager and former chef instructor at the Williamsburg site, had the pleasure of sharing the kitchen with Manny and three of his classmates this summer. In her words,

Though our classes ran at different times of the day, and I was often off to another site by the time they were setting up, I had a window into their class through the students we shared. He was such a strong, impressionable presence for the kids. The students spoke about Mr. Manny with such excitement and adoration. They would often tell me about the recipes they worked on with Manny and how he showed them cool new ways to eat vegetables and have fun with food.

After success in the summer program, Manny applied for a chef assistant position — an opportunity that The Sylvia Center offers all teen apprentices with the goal of staffing as many sites with chefs from the surrounding community. Manny’s first class as a Chef Assistant was last Wednesday at the same site that he taught his first class of summer camp students. Bringing out the chef in children comes naturally to him. “I love cooking and I’m really good with kids.”, Manny remarks.

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Two of the most important lessons from the apprenticeship that have prepared him for this new job? Patience and mise en place. Mise en place is one of the first lessons taught to new chefs in culinary school and to teens in the apprenticeship as well — and there’s a reason for it.  It means “set in place” and it refers to having all your ingredients prepped and ready to go before you start cooking. This time-saving kitchen strategy and life skill helped out tremendously during his first day on the job. “Having everything out and prepped has helped me become better with time. During our first class, the students came into the kitchen a little early, so having everything out and ready helped us out a lot.”

One of the many things that Manny looks forward to the most this fall is working with the kids and learning new recipes. After graduation, he he hopes to attend culinary school to expand and deepen his education in food. We look forward to where this journey with food takes Manny.

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