Bathed in the aroma of warm chocolate, Wayne Johnson expertly scrapes fresh-baked cookies from baking sheets in the impressive culinary teaching facilities of Port Richmond High School, where he is a senior and aspiring chef.
His personal kitchen idol is Mr. James Ryan, his culinary arts teacher; but lately a new influence has begun to shape his cooking practices as well: students in the Wagner nursing program.
“Through my time with the Wagner students, I’ve learned the good and the bad of cooking,” Johnson says. “I didn’t know what’s good for you and what’s bad. I just liked to cook.”
This fall, Wagner nursing students in the senior undergraduate course Community Health and their professor, Nancy Cherofsky, have spent each Wednesday at Port Richmond High School’s Culinary Arts Academy, a four-year program that introduces students to culinary and restaurant management.
The nursing students share tips about healthier eating and nutrition facts, through in-depth presentations, one-on-one teaching during cooking classes, and even taste tests. On this particular Wednesday, they have samples of two types of butter, smeared on slices of bread: conventional vs. grass-fed.
Students in this senior class gobble the bread and butter while also preparing to work on today’s “market basket”: quinoa, tofu, and kale. The fresh, nutrient-packed greens and herbs used in the kitchen were grown on site, on the balcony at the end of the culinary floor’s hallway, where potato tops poke out of raised beds and leafy greens spill out of hanging baskets.
The seniors develop their own recipes from scratch, using their market basket ingredients plus anything else available in the kitchen. Johnson and his team start chopping onions, garlic, carrots, and kale for a creation called Orange-Infused General Tso’s Tofu and Pork-Fried Quinoa with Kale.
The smell of frying bacon makes stomachs growl, and the tofu with an attractive brown marinade looks sautéed to perfection.
“I don’t know how to cook,” confesses Joe De Renzo ’15, one of the Wagner nursing students. He is already an RN, now getting his bachelor’s degree through Wagner’s 15-month BSN program. “So we pick up little hints. We’re learning from them and they’re learning from us. I have tried their food and it’s pretty good.”
Professor Cherofsky mentions another tasty creation of Johnson’s: Peruvian chicken. He fabricated the whole bird and browned it before baking with a slew of herbs and spices, including his personal favorites — cinnamon and cayenne. He now knows that these spices are not only tasty, but also anti-inflammatory and good for the immune system.
“If we can get into these kids’ minds that eating healthy changes the quality of your life, then we are making a difference,” Cherofsky says. Johnson is definitely on board. “I listen and critique my own recipes,” he says. “They’ve inspired me so much in my own cooking style to be healthier in my approach.”