Benjamin Brown’s epiphany came on a whitewater raft in Panama last summer.
The Teach for America recruit had just finished his first year at Robert E. Lake Elementary, just a couple of miles east of the Strip in a low-income neighborhood. He’d taken a summer job doing research for tourism development on Isla Palenque and teaching English in a two-room schoolhouse. It was a challenge—even paper and pens were hard to come by.
“That made me realize how very fortunate the kids are that I taught in Las Vegas—even if they do come from an underprivileged background. They live here, in the ‘Entertainment Capital of the World.’ They are surrounded by an incredible dining scene. I thought, ‘How can that be used as an educational resource?’”
Brown returned from Panama ready to launch First Grade Food Critics, a program that brings industry professionals into the classroom and takes kids on field trips to local restaurants. He waded through the Clark County School District process to get the program approved and then started reaching out.
Brown is also a freelance food writer and had built a year’s worth of connections in the Southern Nevada hospitality community. He wasn’t shy about asking local chefs to teach kids about nutrition, healthful food choices and dining etiquette.
Raw mixologist Shane Stuart of Greens & Proteins taught the kids how to drink their vegetables. California Pizza Kitchen introduced whole-wheat pizza crust and mixed vegetable pasta. During a field trip to the Springs Preserve, the class critiqued the summer menu developed by the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas. And each experience was turned into a writing exercise.
Another aspect of this program is career awareness. All guests speak about their roles in the industry. “This gives the kids a more diverse view of career paths besides doctor and lawyer,” Brown says. “It shows them how their academic skills can help them make that leap from cook to chef, from server to food-and-beverage manager.”
This fall, Brown will expand the program to the kids he’ll be teaching at Jack Lund Schofield Middle School. His students will develop a dining guide to Las Vegas for other kids, with an emphasis on downtown restaurants, as Brown wants to do his part to support Downtown Project initiatives.
While he can say the program has had an impact on his students—18 of whom now eat broccoli—Brown was surprised at how marrying his dual career as teacher and food critic transformed him from a California transplant into a Las Vegas resident. Before his Panamanian epiphany, he figured he’d finish his commitment to Teach for America, and then leave Las Vegas and perhaps even teaching.
“I truly have a bond to something in this city now,” Brown says. “As the days went on, and I got more established in the industry and with this program, I came to love everything about living here. The hospitality industry gave me that sense of community. And that translated into my work in the classroom. I’m genuinely happy now, and I’m a better teacher for it.”
“Avoid butter and salt on vegetables. Kids will learn to like the butter rather than the vegetable. Use different spices instead.”
Skip school lunches
“Based on what I’ve seen and smelled, I wouldn’t eat them. If you want your kids to develop a palate, pack their lunches.”
On the side
Brown was a long jumper, triple jumper and javelin thrower for the University of Southern California’s track team and will be a conditioning and horizontal-jumps coach at Del Sol High School this fall. “I have to earn what I eat,” he says. “My workouts are rigorous, and I may hate life for that period of time, but I always know what’s waiting for me at the end is a beautiful meal.”
Dining out with kids
“I’m a huge fan of Greens & Proteins Healthy Kitchen and juice bar [8975 S. Eastern Ave.). It’s great food, inexpensive and everything you get is sinless but indulgent nevertheless. For a classic buffet, go to the Rio or the M Resort. A great family outing is the Carvery at the top of the Stratosphere. And to splurge on the Strip, I recommend Central at Caesars Palace. It’s comfort food with a French twist.”
A food critic’s diet
“My personal record is [consuming] 100,000 calories in a week. That was heaven for me. That entailed a breakfast buffet followed by snack of a two-course Indian meal, some sushi, a stop for ice cream, a four-course dinner and midnight pizza. Obviously, I can’t sustain that. When I’m not reviewing a restaurant I keep a very simple diet: smoothies with extra protein for breakfast and lunch, and a salmon burger with mixed vegetables for dinner.”