Borrowing from a French tradition, students in five Palo Alto schools next week will mark "Tasting Week," with cooking demonstrations and top chefs visiting their classrooms.
Chefs from San Francisco's Ritz Carlton, Big Sur's Post Ranch Inn, Palo Alto's Calafia and others will present "workshops on taste" to kids at Barron Park and Juana Briones elementary schools, Terman Middle School, Gunn High School and the International School of the Peninsula.
The event was launched by a group of Palo Alto parents led by Rebecca Scholl-Barbier, who was raised in France. She is a manager at ACS, a Xerox company, and mother of four children who attend Gunn, Terman, Juana Briones and preschool.
Scholl-Barbier said she was inspired by a 22-year tasting-week tradition in France, a week-long celebration of food and flavors that local schools adapt to their own curricula. This year's "La Semaine du Gout" in France also runs next week.
"I was out of school by the time it started, but I always thought it was a fascinating program," she said.
Scholl-Barbier sees Tasting Week as a chance to make food "a positive, exploratory experience -- a discovery where a child will actually become more curious."
Though her own favorite food runs to a simple fresh tomato with olive oil and salt, she remembers eating varied hot lunches in the school cafeteria during her Paris childhood, where kids didn't blink at a main course of rabbit or calf's liver.
Tasting Week should be about "the pleasure of discovering food" rather than the typical approaches of viewing food as reward ("If you do your homework you can have this ice cream") or nutrition or punishment ("You have to eat this tofu"), she said.
"I don't want to make it a big political issue -- I just want to make it a celebration."
Scholl-Barbier sought volunteer teachers and chefs to make Tasting Week happen.
She cold-called the Post Ranch's Craig Von Foerster in Big Sur, who said he'd be delighted to come.
Teachers who volunteered were asked to integrate the chefs into their curricula.
At Gunn, chef Gerald Hirigoyen of Piperade in San Francisco will give a presentation in French for advanced French students.
In schools without kitchen facilities, chefs will just work from tables with samples.
"I told the chefs to do whatever they want," Scholl-Barbier said.
She also approached Alva Spence, a manager with Sodexo America who runs the hot lunch program for the Palo Alto Unified School District, and got an enthusiastic response.
Throughout Tasting week, Spence will cart around her "A to Z salad bar," which has a different food for every letter of the alphabet.
Participating chef Charlie Ayers said Tasting Week "will be an opportunity to get children to think outside the box and be adventurous eaters."
The former Google chef and owner of Calafia at Town & Country Village stoutly insists that adventurous eaters "end up with higher IQs."
Asked where he got that idea, Ayers attributed it to Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
"Both of them are very adventurous eaters," he said. "If someone is very narrow-minded and only eats one thing all the time, what's their likelihood of being a great thinker? Pretty small."
Parents and educators have a responsibility to get kids to "eat outside the box," said Ayers, who has a 14-year-old son.
"We fall down every day because we want them to be happy and not upset," he said. "So we end up with a lot of children who only eat pasta or pizza and are not willing to try new things."
Ayers hasn't decided what he'll do in his Tasting Week presentation at Juana Briones, but it will possibly involve blindfolds.
"I like to surprise myself and everyone else. That's how to make it fun," he said.
In the first year of what she hopes will become an annual event, Scholl-Barbier estimates the tasting events will reach 450 students. The events run from Monday (Oct. 17) through the following Wednesday (Oct. 26).
A free Oct. 25 event for parents will feature cookbook author Georgeanne Brennan talking about how to improve school lunch programs.
Tasting Week organizers will hold a wine-tasting and fundraiser Oct. 22 at Lavanda Restaurant and Wine Bar in downtown Palo Alto. The event is open to the public but limited to 60 people. For more information and a schedule for the week go to www.tastingweek.com.