Five-star frugality: Celebrity chef teaches teens how to eat well on a budget

When Communities In Schools of Nevada brought in a chef from the Strip to teach high schoolers how to make nutritious food on a budget, a few life lessons were stirred in along with the food.

Chef Jean Paul Labadie, from Todd English P.U.B. in Crystals at CityCenter, set up his pots and pans Nov. 26 in a classroom at Cimarron-Memorial High School, 2301 N. Tenaya Way.

As soon as the 36 students were in their auditorium-style seats, Labadie told them he could feed them three delicious, nutritious meals for only $37. The students looked doubtful.

CIS site coordinator Ashley Burney said this was just the type of program the group wanted to promote.

“With our students, they are at-risk students, not on track to graduate, so our goal is to encompass life skills along with academic monitoring,” Burney said. “… They can’t go out and purchase filet mignon.”

Labadie’s recipes required four whole chickens, which he had pre-cooked and cut up. They were the most expensive part of his shopping trip. Other items on the grocery list included chicken broth, cheddar cheese and vegetables.

“You don’t have to spend $60, $70 every time you go to the grocery store,” he told the students.

Student Roshonda Duke, 16, said her family usually has dishes such as spaghetti and tacos. She said it was cool that a chef would come to school to teach them recipes.

Robert Andrade, 16, said his mother is a whiz at making shrimp, tamales and quesadillas. He said he hoped the chef would show him how to make enchiladas.

“He might make it different from my mom,” he said.

Sorry — no enchiladas this day. One dish was chicken Alfredo with noodles. The pre-made Alfredo sauce came in a jar and was the costliest item in the recipe . But then, it had only three ingredients. Another dish was Asian-inspired with chicken and thin noodles. The last was Southwestern chicken with a kick, using tortilla chips.

As he waited for his water to boil, Labadie told the students a little about himself. Born in Puerto Rico, he said his parents sent him to Iowa for his formal education. The thinking was that it was “crazy cold” for much of the year, so all he would do was stay inside and study. He went on to college but was unsure of which direction to take — doctor or accountant. Those ideas wore out their welcome. But he liked to cook.

Labadie took a job at a Taco Time. He did the grunt work and made his way up to manager, but by then the company was bought out. So he moved to New Orleans and was fortunate to find a kitchen position, starting at the bottom but wanting more. Labadie realized working in the food industry was in his blood.

He took out student loans to afford a $30,000 two-year culinary school. Things took off from there. Now, he’s proven himself in the culinary world, working on the Strip and preparing meals for entertainers such as Celine Dion, Stevie Wonder and Alicia Keys.

“Nothing worthwhile is easy,” he said. “If you’re working for (a celebrity chef), and there’s something he tells you to do but you don’t want to do it, you take it, because there are about five or 10 people behind you who will do it for that money or less.”

He told them that being a chef meant working long hours and on holidays. He also cautioned them about having children too young.

The teens, all juniors, listened with rapt attention.

“We want to show them that their past does not determine where they’re going,” Burney said about the CIS guest speaker program.

CIS began about seven years ago. It partnered with 12 schools last year and 20 this year. In another classroom nearby, its headquarters at Cimarron-Memorial, stacks of canned goods and boxed food stood ready to be claimed by dozens of families the next day, ensuring that they had a hearty meal for Thanksgiving. Some of the teens had been dealt serious drawbacks, as their parents were deceased or they lived in a motel as the family struggled to stay on its feet.

Having a chef come to school to demonstrate nutritious cooking on a budget was part of the strategy to assist them.

“A lot of them are on food assistance,” Burney said. “… They already have things in their cabinets to make a decent meal.”

Back in the lecture room, Labadie spoke about options for Las Vegas careers as he served up a portion for each teen to taste. He told how someone who was not a stand-up type of person would not be tolerated in today’s business climate. Their resume, he warned them, had to express a willingness to work, and their background check needed to come back as clean as possible.

“No theft, no fights,” he said. “They’re not going to take a chance on somebody who’s been picked up for breaking and entering. … the casinos don’t play around. If you can’t pass a drug test, you’re gone.”

Students called out questions — the award he’d love to get, his favorite dish, celebrities he’d met, how to make sure popcorn didn’t burn in the microwave. Brittany McCoy, resource development director for CIS, brought things back on track.

“Now that you have kids, if you could tell them three things about working hard, how to succeed in their future, what would you tell them?” she called out.

He said he tells his high schoolers to take 15 seconds before making any rash decision.

“Peer pressure is very strong at that age,” he said. “The second one is, stay in school.”

Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at or 702-387-2949.

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