All across the Howell Public Schools the lunch menu on Thursday was an early preview of a Thanksgiving dinner. At the old Southard School later that night, a graduate of the district gave around 40 residents a slightly more refined meal while spreading his message of healthy eating.
Chef Marvin Woods who has made a name for himself in some of the biggest culinary cities in the country, was back in town thanks to the efforts of Sgt. Chris Hill and the Howell PAL for a demonstration class. The two lifelong friends said it will be the first of a series of classes the chef will give over the next few months.
During his presentation on Thursday Woods made a seafood bouillabaisse, walking the participants through each step of the process and letting some lucky volunteers help with the preparation. He also talked about the advantages of using certain ingredients including barley as opposed to rice and other money saving ideas. By the time the event was done delicious food was available to everyone who packed the old elementary school's cafeteria.
With it being the first big event at the PAL headquarters, Hill said it was an absolute success. "You can tell by the faces that are here and the comments. He hasn't been able to stop talking to people since he finished," he said.
Hill added that there were two reasons he believed it was a success. In addition to it being a fun event for the community, it also sets a good example for the younger generation. "It shows our kids in PAL that they too can be successful," he said. "It doesn't matter where you're from. It matters what you put into it. Here's a hometown guy that made it."
His success was evident with copies of his books on display as well as an autographed picture with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. "He did it because he has the drive," Hill said. "His father and mother made sure that education came first and everything else came second."
Woods said his cooking career started in his kitchen at home in seventh grade and blossomed in the home economics classes of Howell High School. He had no idea at that time just how far his love of food would take him. "Back in the 70's and 80's there was no Food Netowrk, there was no 24 hour cooking show," he said. "I had no idea that you could goand pursue this as a career."
He said it was his friendship with Hill that helped him pursue his dreams of being a chef. "I was a skinny kid. Chris was one of those people who took me under his wing and didn't let anybody mess with me," he said. "That extended to cooking as well." While many of his friends were playing sports, Woods said he was always more comfortable in the kitchen.
After getting accepted to Johnson and Wales, Woods said he completed his college career at the Academy of Culinary Arts after realizing the weather in Rhode Island was not what he was looking for. And since his school was right near Atlantic City, Woods said he got to work in the kitchens of some of the casinos while learning his craft.
As a result, after graudation some of his first jobs came at well known restaurants including The Sea Grill at Rockefeller Center and Windows on the World on the top of what used to be the World Trade Center. That was the start of a journey that Woods said he has been "very blessed," to take. "I've been doing this for 28 years. When I say I've been all over the world, I've been all over the world."
He has taken his talents to Europe, Africa, Central and South America and the Carribean over the years before coming back to the states. When he was working in New York during the big snow storm of 1996, Woods said he knew it was time to find a new location. "It shut the city down," he said with a smile and a laugh. "I had never seen the city shut down."
When a friend offered him the chance to work in sunny Miami, Woods said he jumped at it and has since brought his talents to other southern cities including Atlanta and Charleston. After five yers in Atlanta, he is now ready to bring his abilities back to the Big Apple.
Even more than being back in New York, Woods said he is glad to be coming closer to home. "Even though I left Jersey, I'm a Jersey kid," he said. "It's where I came up. It's in me through and through and it never left me." And when he released his first book, his first book signing was at the in Freehold.
Now that he has started the series at Southard, Woods said it has allowed him to connnect to his roots again. "Its been really good catching up with the people that I grew up with that are near and dear to my heart," he said.
Hill said he is looking forward to starting the program with his friend in the near future. "Marvin's program is based on eating good food, saving money amd most importantly not gaining any weight," he said. That includes not using too much salt, not using sugar and using other natural ingredients in the recipes.
While the details are still being worked out Hill said participants will be able to learn from the chef and in the end compete to see who can make the best dish with Woods serving as the judge.