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The Real Top Chef

Moriska Selby Ed.L.D. Candidate

The sixth graders call her “Chef Selby,” even though Ed.L.D. candidate Moriska Selby is not a trained chef. On Wednesday afternoons at Orchard Gardens K–8 Pilot School in Boston, you will find Selby, dreadlocks meticulously pulled off her face, busy cleaning black laboratory tables with Clorox spray. It’s part of her “Top Chef Apprenticeship” — a 10-week course, run under the nonprofit Citizen Schools, that teaches 20 sixth-grade students cooking techniques, vocabulary, and 21st-century skills. Each week her challenge is teaching them how to cook in a science classroom using only microwaves, toaster ovens, and George Foreman grills. Arguably, it’s a daunting task that would likely stump even the most celebrated top chefs. Yet, Selby has been doing so for five years in Boston-area schools.

Upon seeing the bright-colored silicone muffin cups on the tables, a sixth grade boy exclaims, “Yay! We are making cupcakes.”

But they are not. Selby urges them to quickly put on their white aprons, paper chef hats, and take a seat. She has only 90-minutes to teach the students about a celebrity chef, a cooking technique, and how to make frittatas.

“I love to cook,” she’ll tell you, but some might say Selby’s true love is education.

When she arrived in New York City as an immigrant from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines at age six, she found solace in the classroom and in the kitchen. Her family instilled the importance of education with a mantra of “get an education, get a job, and be successful in America.” Selby excelled in the classroom, ranking number eight out of a high school class of more than 400 students. Though she considered being an accountant, Selby recognized her passion for helping others. “Education naturally does that,” she says.

As a senior at Tufts University studying child development, she volunteered for Citizen Schools, a nonprofit that expands learning opportunities for middle school students in under-resourced communities, and stuck with it, eventually became the managing director of program for the Massachusetts region. After 10 years with Citizen Schools, Selby gave her18-month notice. “I felt like I was lacking that traditional classroom experience,” she says. But as Selby explored teaching opportunities, she also applied to the Ed School’s Doctor of Education Leadership Program (Ed.L.D.) — an intensive three-year program focused on preparing system-level leaders in education. She got in.

Within the first semester at Harvard this fall, Selby felt a “hole” not being with children in the classroom. “I’m learning how to be better [at what I do], but I’m not around kids,” she says. “[The classroom] is where I find balance.”

So, she returned to Citizen Schools as a volunteer and resurrected “Top Chef Apprenticeship,” which she previously taught five times in schools in the Dorchester and Charlestown neighborhoods. It’s a commitment in time and cost. She admits to having to revamp recipes often at home so it will work with microwaves and toasters, and looked to crowdsourcing site Indiegogo to raise money for all the ingredients — $945.

“Getting the opportunity to teach is my relaxation — to hear 20 sixth graders calling me ‘Chef Selby,’” she says.

As a fan of Top Chef, Selby created the apprenticeship based on the show and her memories of learning to cook. As a young girl, she stood on a crate just to reach the table where her mother and aunt concocted meals. Sometimes they let her lick the bowl filled with cake batter. Other times they let her make “sugar water” because she didn’t have any packets of Kool Aid. But what she remembers most is how they always talked about everything in the kitchen.

Although Selby initially thought the apprenticeship would teach math, health, or even cooking basics, it’s really about learning to communicate and work together. The apprenticeship finale is similar to the show where students open a “pop up” restaurant that serves family, teachers, and special guests.

“Middle school can be so tough and students don’t get along a lot,” she says. “There is a social piece to this about getting along and talking to each other.”

The apprenticeship has been a hit among the students.

“I love food and always wanted to cook,” says sixth grader Kashetu Oseni.

His classmate Angelica Estrella only knew how to cook scrambled eggs before the apprenticeship. Recently at home Angelica made tortilla chips and salsa she learned in an earlier class. “I think she’s awesome and because of her I’m here,” Angelica says about Selby. “I’m learning to cook and I’m not hungry.”

As the young chefs gather around microwaves and watch their frittatas, filled with red and green peppers, potatoes, and cheese, bubbling and spinning for three minutes, they are already catching on. “We all have to work together or else it’s not going to be as good,” Kashetu says.

Upon hearing that, Chef Selby smiles knowing she’s done her job.