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Students serve up Thanksgiving

Nov. 21, 2012

Roasted turkey with mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, cranberry sauce and corn bread.

You might be eating this today, but rest assured, this bird is different.

These are the things that will make Thanksgiving special for 10 families who are receiving their donated meals from Waukesha County Technical College (WCTC) culinary students. Chef instructor Jack Birren has arranged for two dinners to go directly to area families and eight more to the Food Pantry of Waukesha County.

Birren said that the students have a blast in the kitchen while they'remaking the meals, but they're learning a lot too. They're taking simple dishes that we eat every year and learning something new about them. Think garlic mashed potatoes, maple-glazed carrots, whiskey-spiked cranberry sauce and homemade corn bread.

"Being able for them to go home and say, 'Mom, I've got the turkey this year,' means a lot to me and my students," he said.

Birren has worked in numerous chef and management roles at restaurants, including the Radisson Hotel in Providence, R.I., Carrabbas, Stir Crazy, Boston University, Legal Seafood, and as a teaching assistant atJohnson & Wales University. He's new to WCTC but wasted no time getting his students involved with the community.

Peggy Williams, WCTC food clerk for Hospitality & Culinary Arts Management, had originally asked for one meal.

"The whole thing actually started last year, and Peggy had asked me if I would continue to donate a turkey, but I have two classes, so we decided to make more," Birren explained.

The food pantry could certainly use the extra hand, too. It serves more than 6,400 people each month and serves about 1,600 around Thanksgiving. These are families with members who work full time but who earn low wages or have decreased their hours. They're also families who have lost their jobs or homes and are struggling to make ends meet. Karen Tredwell of the Waukesha Food Pantry said it's still important for these families to be able to celebrate Thanksgiving, just like any other American family.

"We are very cognizant that everyone in the entire world sees food as a cultural tradition - a family tradition - and for us to have community leaders, like Chef Jack (Birren), recognize that, too, is just very generous and very thoughtful," Tredwell said.

That's why Birren plans to be more involved with the community. Tredwell said that they're planning more projects between WCTC culinary students and the Waukesha Food Pantry, including more meal donations and fundraising dinners.

"With the Food Network or the Cooking Channel and all those chefs you see on TV, a chef's status in the community has gone through the roof ... Now kids see the uniform, and it's at a level of celebrity status. I want my students to be proud of their profession and involved in the community," Birren said.

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