San Diego’s Master Chef Jr., the Chef Behind the Curtain and the Inspiration They Leave Us

March 20, 2015

By Geneva Gámez-Vallejo

Chef Ricardo Heredia, a cooking champion and the man behind the Food Network Junior Champion Nathan Odom

Chef Ricardo Heredia, a cooking champion and the man behind the Food Network Junior Champion Nathan Odom

Tuesday, March 17 was proclaimed “Nathan Odom Day” by Councilman Todd Gloria. Now, Nathan Odom may not be a household name yet, but it’s one to look out for. For one, it’s a name that’s definitely got San Diego feeling proud. Mr. Odom, a North Park resident, is Fox Network Master Chef Jr.’s latest winner. That’s a pretty big deal, specially for a kid his age.

It’s not every day that a 12 year old has the opportunity to let his talent shine on national television, compete with 19 other remarkable junior chefs, and walk away with $100K. That doesn’t come easy though. It was actually a tough task to take on if you ask anyone who watched the show. To work under the pressure and scrutiny of Chef Gordon Ramsay deserves an award in itself.

So how was Nathan able to put these crazy delicious entrees together anyway? It turns out the boy’s got talent. It must be one of those innate skills some genius kids are born with. All takes practice, however. A couple years ago, the now Roosevelt Middle School student, participated in the after school program Scratch, a culinary education course that offers inner-city elementary school students the opportunity to learn cooking methods extraordinary from what you may ever learn at home, with the added bonus of cooking with ingredients that most kids may not be exposed to at that age.

Since 2009, the program has been led by Chef Ricardo Heredia, who is no stranger to winning competitions himself. In November he took the 2014 World Food Champion title, accompanied by $100K, beating out 400 other chefs in the kitchen.

He also won the Big Bite Bacon Fest last year and in 2013.

Heredia hasn’t had it as pleasurable as it sounds though. He comes from a rough upbringing, a childhood that includes being in and out of foster homes with his three siblings, a mother who was incarcerated and jobs that left him with no legal resumé experience. You’d think that with all odds working against him, he’d end up anywhere but in the kitchen with little folk.

Moving from one family to another, however, forced Heredia to pick up cooking skills at age six. He shared the profound emptiness he grew up with only yearning for someone to be there to teach him something, anything and why this program is his baby, his newfound love. “Working with kids is important to me because I just remember so vividly being a child and wanting someone to teach me something, anything that was positive that could have kept me out of trouble and gave me a chance to be creative and bring a little joy” recalled Heredia.

He further explained the lack of unity at the table nowadays. Evidently, a joy he was deprived from growing up away from his family. His intention with Scratch is to also bring families together “I want people to sit down and eat together as a family, I feel we’re losing that as a society.” This is why students get to cook for their parents at the conclusion of the course.

When asked how students benefit from Scratch, Principal Julie Ashton-Gray of McKinley IB World School where Nathan attended when he participated in the program, said “Students have first hand experience working with Chef Ricardo Heredia to become familiar with the expertise involved in creating exquisite healthy meals. Chef Ricardo took time to get to know the students, and created a positive unique learning environment at McKinley and in partnership with Alchemy restaurant in South Park. Students’ culminating project was to prepare a first class meal for their parents at Alchemy alongside Chef Ricardo. This was an incredible experience for all participating students, especially Nathan!!!”

Mrs. Ashton-Gray, added that Scratch was a first class learning opportunity for its participating students and “On behalf of the entire McKinley Community, I am so proud of Nathan and thrilled at his fantastic achievement. I watched the last two episodes on pins and needles and can’t wait to congratulate him in person. He is a student of exceptional character and committed to always doing his best! Bravo Nathan!

She’s not the only one congratulating Nathan Odom, Councilman Todd Gloria expressed “Nathan has an early start to a bright future in his career, he is an example.” About the culinary program Gloria showed nothing but positive support towards it, saying he believes “This is something that adds an additional dimension to learning, it’s not just about reading and writing -which are both very important- but it’s also about providing life skills that transition to a bright future and potential careers.”

San Diego is most definitely going through a major blooming phase and the hospitality industry is budding astonishingly. To see potential in children as young as Nathan is a promising inspiration. More so, to know the story of the guy behind programs like Scratch is touching and can make anyone want to get up and do something. Heredia showed humbleness when asked about his contribution to Nathan’s abilities in the kitchen. “I followed the competition keenly. I think his experience in the Mckinley kitchen and in our final class in my kitchen at the restaurant was impactful for all the students and that comfort-ability helped. Nathan is a very composed and talented young man and all the credit deserves to go to him for his accomplishments” said Heredia of his alumni.

The program is scheduled to start up again in a couple months as the educational division to Heredia’s business KM (Kitchen Mafioso) Consulting. Interested students are asked to write an essay explaining why they want to join the class, from a pool of about 30 students, Heredia tries to give the ones with less opportunity the first shot at the ten student class.

From each class, Chef Ricardo Heredia hopes students benefit by “…[getting] a better understanding of foods, where they come from and the history behind them. The science behind what is happening to our food [as] we cook it. A understanding of taste and smell and how it relates but the biggest push is to get us to cook with our children more.”

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