Pick of the Week

Cooking for a Cause

As a firefighter and paramedic for more than 10 years, Megan Thompson has been in her share of hot and hectic situations. She's experienced many of those on the job--but she's also experienced several in the kitchens of Tucson Originals restaurants.

As an apprentice chef participating in Primavera Cooks!, Thompson has worked over hot stoves, rubbed elbows with Tucson's elite chefs and helped whip up meals for hungry crowds--all as a volunteer.

"Primavera Cooks! is a 10-dinner series in Tucson Originals restaurants to raise funds for Tucson's homeless and near-homeless community. The twist of the event is that community members can make a ($250) donation to Primavera and be apprentice chefs in professional kitchens," explains Deborah Dale, chief development officer of Primavera Foundation. "They plan and execute a five-course (wine-paired) dinner for diners who also support Primavera through their participation."

Primavera "provides pathways out of poverty for Tucson's homeless and working poor" through community education, advocacy and a wide array of services. Now in its 25th year, the organization benefits greatly from Primavera Cooks!; Dale says the event raises about $100,000.

In this seventh year of Primavera Cooks!, participating restaurants are Janos (May 21), Feast (June 2), Dakota Café (June 11), Acacia at St. Philip's (June 25), Rio Café (July 16), Pastiche (Aug. 6), Cup Café (Aug. 20), Cuvée World Bistro (Sept. 10), Kingfisher Bar and Grill (Sept. 14 brunch) and Jonathan's Cork (Sept. 17). Diners donate $125 to enjoy a meal, seated at tables of eight or 10. Many of the apprentices invite family and friends to dine at the restaurant where they are cooking.

"There are three to five apprentices per restaurant. They meet with the chef one month before the dinner to talk about what they want to learn," says Dale. "They pair wines with what they want to cook. The chef then plans the menu. About three days before the dinner, the apprentices begin the prep work. The day of the meal, they execute the dinner and do the plating. ... After the meal, there is a Q&A period where the diners can ask the apprentices anything about their experience."

While Dale says most apprentices tend to have an interest in food and wine, their experience level varies. Some have experience cooking, while others are inexperienced, such as one woman who said the only reason she had a kitchen was because it came with her house.

Thompson comes to the table with not only an interest in cooking, but on-the-job experience: She cooks for crews in the Picture Rocks Fire District. While the firefighters share cooking duties, Thompson says she does the majority of cooking, and has even shared her skills with others.

Thompson is excited to be participating in her fifth year of Primavera Cooks! In the past, she has worked at Pastiche and Acacia; this year will be her first at Janos.

Throughout the years, Thompson has learned a lot and prepared a variety of dishes, including a braised beef short rib in a wine reduction, vichyssoise and a triple-chocolate crème brûlée Napoleon with a chocolate hazelnut crunch. She says the dessert took eight hours to prepare for 75 people.

"The first thing you learn is how hot it is in a commercial kitchen. I've gotten an appreciation for what goes on in a kitchen. It's like a dance; every person has a job. ... I've learned more knife skills, types of sautéing, pastry and desserts," says Thompson.

One of her more memorable experiences came during the 2006 Primavera Cooks! With a 4-month-old newborn, she scurried between Acacia's kitchen and the nearby Windmill Inn to breast-feed her baby girl.

"It's so much fun to be an apprentice. I've heard rave responses from everyone who has been a part of it," she says.

Kathy Dixon will be one of the apprentices working with Thompson at Janos. This will be her fourth year as an apprentice, with previous stints at Fuego, Kingfisher and Cuvée. Dixon works as an aide to Tucson City Councilman Rodney Glassman.

Dixon has learned skills in bread-baking and has improved her knife skills while preparing appetizers, salads, desserts, breads, soups and entrées. She echoes Thompson's comparison between the kitchen and a dance, saying, "There's an amazing amount of preparation and choreography in the kitchen."

For those without experience in the kitchen who may want to be an apprentice, Dixon offers sage advice: "You have to be able to take instructions well, have an open mind, and have fun!"

The 2008 Primavera Cooks! begins at Janos on Wednesday, May 21. A reception starts at 5:30 p.m.; dinner is at 7 p.m. To make reservations for this or other any dinner in the series, contact David Elliott at the Primavera Foundation at 623-5111, ext. 101. For more information about Primavera, visit the organization's Web site.

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