Just two miles separate students at Maryville Academy in Des Plaines from the E+O restaurant at Randhurst Village shopping center.
But they might as well be on separate sides of the earth.
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Chef Rodelio Aglibot is co-owner of E+O, a renowned establishment getting high marks from diners. The boys at Maryville's Jen School, meanwhile, aren't likely to visit E+O, or any high-end restaurant. They have a variety of special needs and all have undergone some trauma in their lives.
Still, last week their worlds collided in a unique and interesting way.
Aglibot spent a day in Maryville's kitchen, preparing a large lunch for the campus with the help of the boys, who learned a bit about cooking and working in an industrial kitchen.
The teenagers already hade some appreciation for using fresh vegetables in cooking. All summer they helped with the school's garden, harvesting the vegetables for their kitchen and selling some produce to faculty and staff.
Aglibot, however, took their farm-to-table experience one step further. Students donned aprons and hairnets to prepare a full lunch. Working under Aglibot's direction and that of his sous chef, Nelson Bloom, they made chicken with a teriyaki sauce, rice, ginger glazed vegetables and avocado and bacon sushi.
The emphasis on fresh vegetables and sushi reflected Aglibot's menus from E+O, which he started in California and brought to the Northwest suburbs last fall. But his partnership with the Jen School and Anne Craig, its chief academic officer, came by way of a charitable organization he co-founded: In Chef's Hands.
"We're trying to create kitchen experiences for students with special needs," Aglibot said. "We look at cooking as therapy. It's food therapy for the soul."
Students helped with some of the prep work and cleanup, and watched as Aglibot made the teriyaki sauce and Bloom rolled the avocado and bacon together in a sushi pad.
"The fun part is tasting," said Desmond Balenitinse. "I like how everybody helps."
Teachers at the Jen School started holding Kitchen Invasion Projects last year and Craig sees many benefits. It is designed to give students an idea of what it is like to work in a kitchen and gain an understanding of what it takes to prepare lunch for the entire school every day.
She adds that students don't realize it, but by doing meal planning, preparation and serving they are using math, language arts, social skills, nutrition and vocational skills.
Getting Aglibot to spend the day with them was priceless.
"He's on TV, he's a celebrity," Craig said of Aglibot, who hosted his own show on TLC, the Food Buddha, and has appeared on The Food Network, the Ellen DeGeneres show and Entertainment Tonight, among others.
"The fact that he wants to spend time with them is inspiring. Many of these students want to work in the food industry, so he's a role model."
Aglibot grew up in California, where his father was a Navy cook.
"I grew up in a cooking family, I was around it all the time," he said. "But I didn't decide to pursue it until I was an adult."
The exposure to it, he says, and the seeds grown while spending time in the kitchen, paid him dividends for a lifetime. Now, he's interested in spreading the wealth.
"Now that I know these kids are just two miles away," Aglibot said, "I hope we can do more projects like this."