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Stephen Manning, 17, learned a few pointers on cooking up the perfect filet mignon from Tuscan Kitchen sous chef William Morin inside the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Salem Tuesday morning. Ten local teens took part in this summer's Junior Chef program, where he teamed up with the staff at the Tuscan Kitchen restaurant to learn all aspects of the food business. The program culminated in a student-prepared gourmet dinner, with proceeds to benefit upcoming Junior Chef programs. (APRIL GUILMET)

Aspiring chefs test newfound cooking skills

SALEM — After many weeks working in the summer heat, 10 teenage chefs from the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Salem aren't planning on getting out of the kitchen anytime soon.

On Tuesday afternoon, the club's upstairs kitchen was buzzing with activity as the members of the new Junior Chef program whipped up a gourmet meal.

The program began about 10 weeks ago, where the teens, ranging in age from 13 to 17, began meeting with the staff at the Tuscan Kitchen on-site each Tuesday and Wednesday.

Tuesday marked the program's grand finale, and hours before the first guests arrived the young chefs were hard at work chopping vegetables, cooking filet mignon, slicing bread and plating entrees under the watchful eye of executive chef Edward Payne.

Payne, who began making pizzas at age 13, said the local restaurant has enjoyed being active in the community since opening its doors several years ago.

After meeting with the club's executive director, Michael Centor, the two men agreed that the club's professional kitchen program had a lot of potential.

"We'd been kicking around the idea for a while," Payne said. "So this summer, we decided we were just going to go for it."

While their peers spent days at the beach, some of the apprentice chefs got important life lessons over the summer months.

Some days, Payne's classes began at 6 a.m., where the teens learned the fine art of kneading bread dough and pulling mozzarella, all made from scratch.

While they were at it, they also learned a thing or two about budgeting, finances and logistics — all important components in running a successful food business.

Centor, who used to work in restaurant management before his career with the Boys & Girls Club, said he was pleased with the results of the new program, which he hopes to expand in the future.

"We've forged one beautiful partnership with the Tuscan Kitchen," he said, noting that at least three of this year's program participants are also enrolled in the culinary arts program at Salem High School and have expressed interest in forging a culinary career.

Last week the students, decked out in their own personalized chef coats, got a chance to share their newfound talents with their parents and siblings during a practice run of their final menu.

On Tuesday, 30 guests enjoyed the fruits of the junior chefs' labors.

Each guest donated $100 to the club's Junior Chef program. For their generosity, they were rewarded with steaming plates of pancetta-wrapped filet mignon, grilled chicken and sundried tomato bruschetta, portabella mushrooms stuffed with house-made sausage and Fontina cheese and pesto-stuffed grilled jumbo shrimp wrapped in prosciutto, among other delicacies.

Jonathan Aquino, the restaurant's logistics manager, said he was impressed with teens' professionalism.

"They pretty much organized everything on their own," Aquino said. "It was pretty awesome to see."

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Saturday, 12 p.m. - 4 p.m.

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