The pot of polenta cooking on the Lantern stove would seem large in front of any of the Chapel Hill restaurant’s staff, but to see a fourth grader push her wooden spoon through it like an oar in water emphasizes its heft. The pot rests on a counter full of food: meatballs fresh from the oven, a bright and rich tomato sauce, a mixed green salad with herb vinaigrette, two fresh coconut cakes the size of hubcaps.

Fourth and fifth graders made it all, too. The four-course meal for fifty people is the big night for Kitchen Patrol, a partnership between chef Andrea Reusing, farmer Vera Fabian, and the Sonja Haynes Stone Center’s Communiversity Youth Program.

From September through March, students from Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools spend Tuesday afternoons at Lantern, learning everything from knife skills to tasting, service, and classic culinary technique. At the end of the program, the Kitchen Patrol participants cook a meal and host their families at Lantern, where they receive handmade cookbooks with the recipes they mastered.

The food is fantastic, too, the type of comforting fare with touches of sophistication you’d be happy to pay for. That a dozen nine- to ten-year-olds prepared it makes it all the more stunning. It falls in line with Reusing’s goal for Kitchen Patrol, which she describes as “helping kids see that cooking is magic, the kind of magic we can all make happen.”

Now in its third year, Kitchen Patrol is one of many projects Fabian and Reusing oversee. Though Reusing has Lantern and The Durham, and Fabian owns Ten Mothers Farm outside Hillsborough, Fabian jokingly calls those massive undertakings “a few minor distractions.”

“Andrea asked me if I wanted to start a kids’ cooking program with her. How could I say no?” Fabian says. “I love farming, but I also love cooking and I wanted to continue to teach and work with the community. Kitchen Patrol is the perfect side gig.”

The cover of the Kitchen Patrol cookbook features the doodles and scribbles one expects of fourth and fifth graders, from a colorful flower pattern to the unchecked compulsion to practice writing one’s own name in cursive. But the recipes inside are far from elementary. Homemade mayonnaise, like the one that appears in Reusing’s Cooking in the Moment (minus the anchovy) is a delicate task. Fabian says that the students’ determination means it usually comes out beautifully. The pages include numerous chef-driven African dishes, like Bryant Terry’s Afro-vegan collard greens and Tunde Wey’s Nigerian frejon. The book also features Bill Smith’s gumbo z’herbes, a recipe the Crook’s Corner chef took down the street to teach the young scholars.

At the Kitchen Patrol family dinner, which has less of a reserved fine dining atmosphere and more of a friendly community potluck feel thanks to the proud parents at every table, Smith says there’s little difference in teaching adults and schoolchildren in the kitchen.

Reusing agrees: “In some ways it’s more straightforward. The kids are very focused in the kitchen, and they get so much satisfaction out of being able to peel and chop an onion on their own, or a challenge like figuring out how to ice a cake together.”

Fabian says she initially worried the Communiversity scholars would lose interest in Kitchen Patrol when they returned for a second year as fifth graders, but it quickly became evident the second year was more meaningful.

“With one year under their belts, fifth graders become kitchen leaders, showing the first-year students how to dice an onion or sauté greens,” Fabian says. “Our second year, students feel proud of the skills they’ve learned, are more confident in the kitchen, and, we hope, more likely to put these skills to work at home and for the rest of their lives.”

At the family dinner, the graduating fifth graders are open about how much the program means to them. “Lantern, I will truly miss you,” one says before dinner, a sentiment heard more than once during the evening.

Communiversity program manager Chris Wallace sees Kitchen Patrol as an important teaching tool.

“It’s math and science in the kitchen, it’s job skills, and it’s nutrition,” Wallace says, identifying each as a crucial area for improvement among minority students.

After all, kids are more likely to remember Kitchen Patrol’s pickle fermentation lesson than a textbook chapter about microbes.

The group, all black or Hispanic, will move on, but many will return. The family-night dining room includes a handful of older siblings who learned from Fabian and Reusing in previous years, now back to size up their little brothers’ or sisters’ skills.

They may be older now, but the food hasn’t lost any of its magic.

Jordan Terrell sets the tables while preparing to serve a meal made by students participating in the Kitchen Patrol after-school program at Lantern in Chapel Hill. photo by alex boerner

left, below Kitchen Patrol instructor Vera Fabian talks with Mahlaya Diallo, nine, as Mahlaya and the other students prepare to serve a meal to their families. right, above Mahlaya reacts to seeing the thickness of the whipped cream being made by chef Andrea Reusing. photos by alex boerner