A New Kitchen for Jeffrey Brana
Few South Florida chefs command more respect and outright foodie love than Jeffrey Brana. His credentials include working with Norman Van Aken in various capacities, including chef de cuisine, at the award-winning Norman’s; opening Restaurant Brana in Coral Gables with his wife, Anna; operating the Brana Food Group, a series of underground pop-up dinners; and reuniting with Van Aken at Tuyo at the Miami Culinary Institute. Most recently, Brana opened a restaurant for a group outside of Florida.
Now, he’s back in town, sharing tips with tinier toques as a program manager for Common Threads, the national organization that teaches children living in underserved communities how to cook wholesome, healthy meals in after-school programs.
If you’re thinking pigs in blankets and canned pear salad, think again. “Visit a class and see 8-year-olds with knives and open flames,” says Brana. “A scary proposition, it may seem, but it is transformative.”
Brana’s responsibilities include overseeing the Small Bites curriculum, managing after-school cooking classes and family classes and engaging the business community. Their in-school program, mapped to Common Core and meeting state standards for reading and math, teaches lessons that go beyond basic life skills, says Brana – they’re aimed at tackling the huge issue of food insecurity in this country.
“Children in underserved areas are the most vulnerable to obesity and chronic illness as a result of malnutrition,” he says. “Obesity rates among children have tripled since 1980, and while there has been a slight decline, rates are still rising among the children in the areas that Common Threads works. A Yale University study recently drew a correlation between nutrition and health and academic achievement. How can we address test scores in underperforming schools when we are failing our children when it comes to providing them the tools to make good nutrition choices with what is available in their community?”
Brana says the popularity of farmers markets, a revived interest in cooking and the proliferation of primetime reality cooking shows mean Americans are having conversations about food – but not necessarily the right ones.
“What all of this food hoopla does not represent is children, especially in our underserved communities, who almost never get the opportunity to have someone tell them what is and isn’t good for them to eat, much less learn how to cook what is,” he says.
Common Threads teaches skills that can make a lifelong positive impact in their lives, he says. “What Common Threads programming does is give children the knowledge about nutrition, but takes that one step farther and reinforces those ideas on a weekly basis through practical experience in preparing food, whether simply making smoothies or salsa in the classroom, or butchering a chicken in the family class.”
Brana, who’s worked with some of the best chefs and cooks in the country, sees in these young cooks the same joy of accomplishment as he sees in his professional counterparts.
“Part of the pleasure that a great cook takes from food is the ability to be intensely focused on the task at hand, yet have fun doing it. This, coupled with the satisfaction of enjoying the meal with family or friends, is icing on the proverbial cake,” he says. “Seeing a group of children with smiles on their faces and as engaged with food as those chefs and cooks” – and knowing they’re gaining knowledge that can keep them healthy – is “priceless.”
Want to help? Common Threads will be offering a FREE Summer Camp this year for 3rd-5th graders. The camp will meet Monday–Friday from 10am-2pm at Miami Culinary Institute on the Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus, 300 NE 2nd Avenue. This hands-on camp will feature cooking classes, a kitchen science lab, physical activity, and tasty and healthy food. Students will learn how to cook cuisines from all around the world, how to make healthy choices in and out of the kitchen, and conduct science experiments using basic kitchen items. For more information on how you can be involved contact Jeannie Necessary at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 786-238-0963
Photo: Common Threads Miami