Monday, February 1, 2010

Hot on the Trail of Cultural Treasure Hunt

Some seek the elusive, ivory-billed wood pecker.  Others try to track down Sasquatch. In our city on Thursday, January 21, 50 enthusiastic tenth and eleventh grade Philadelphia Academies students and their dedicated teachers traveled on their first of five cultural treasure hunts.  This series of treasure hunts are the result of a collaborative partnership between Philadelphia Academies, Art Reach, local hospitality businesses, and cultural institutions.

The students, from Benjamin Franklin, Horace Furness, Jules E. Mastbaum, Swenson Arts & Technology, and George Washington high schools, participate in the Philadelphia Academies Restaurant and Hospitality magnet program. As part of the program, they had the chance to take a behind-the-scenes look at the Omni Hotel at Independence Park, dine at the hotel’s 4-star restaurant Azalea, get career tips from Philadelphia Academies Academy Resource Manager Corvette M. Kittrell, hear updates on the city’s tourist scene from Katherine Ott-Lovell, Mural Arts Chief Advancement Officer, participate in an orientation on the Treasure Hunt with Art-Reach Program Manager Matt Bryan, and experience live theater with InterAct Theater Company.

I tagged along as an Art Reach board member/Ambassador/culture vulture to share this fun, fast-paced, informative experience.

The hotel’s Director of Sales, Christopher Laufer, arranged for a cooking demonstration with Executive Chef Bamba Konate. Chef and Sous Chef Beni demonstrated how to make Azalea’s signature crab cakes and fresh tomato bruschetta. Not only did all of the students get to sample the food, but Chef also provided take-home copies of the recipes altered for the students’ home kitchens. Morgan, a tall, serious student interested in cooking and baking, shared with me his interest in trying the recipes at home to surprise his parents on Valentine’s Day!

Tony Venuto, Executive Housekeeper and staff provided room tours of the 150-room European-style boutique hotel. The students were able to visit typical rooms and learn about room amenities (cushy bed linens, cozy bathrobes, mini snack/bar, and room service). William, a quiet, handsome student and avid Philadelphia sports fan, asked questions about providing security for visiting sports teams and had a close-up look at the room safe. Overall, he liked the room amenities, especially the flat-screen TV and internet access. I definitely can picture William as the Director of Security for a major hotel some day.

Having completed the tour, we headed back to the hotel’s restaurant Azalea for a delicious, three-course dinner prepared by Chef and staff.  While eating dinner, Corvette M. Kittrell reminded the students that the restaurant and hospitality field was not just about “cooking and housekeeping.” For example, she indicated the need for attorneys, accounts, and decorators to support the tourism industry in Philadelphia, a world-class tourist destination. Kathryn Ott-Lovell talked about the Mural Arts Program's mural tours, which served 10,000 visitors in the last year by taking guests to see the artwork on walls in our neighborhoods. The Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association presented its 2008 award to MAP for its outstanding promotion of tourism in our city. Many students in the audience have murals in their respective neighborhoods or have worked on painting a mural at their school, so they were very familiar with MAP and its mission.

After dinner while we were lining up to ride the school buses to InterAct Theater, I asked fashionable, pretty Kareemah what she thought of the treasure hunt so far.  She told me that “the food was outstanding and [she] loved the plates and decorations” in the dining room. She also mentioned that the demonstrations and tour made the textbook information more “real and understandable”.

For our final experience of the evening, we arrived at InterAct Theater. Artistic Director Seth Rozin greeted us in the lobby before we took in the play City of Numbers. Seth talked about the history of the theater company and its mission of providing work with socially topical themes for Philadelphia audiences. City of Numbers was produced by InterAct in conjunction with the Mural Arts Program and the Violette de Mazia Foundation, and illustrated yet another way that hospitality, tourism and the arts work together. The production is a one-man show telling the story of a young writer who travels to Graterford prison in an attempt to understand the inmates’ lives and the impact of art, specifically murals, on their time behind bars.

Sean, the actor and playwright, transforms himself from warden, to inmate, to prison guard and other characters in this 75 minute production. His greeting of “Yo Philadeldelphia Academies, wassup?” was heartily returned by our Cultural Treasure Hunters. The play covered many sensitive topics, like the Philadelphia murder rate and the tedium of life behind bars.  The students enthusiastically responded to Sean’s hip-hop dancing and became thoughtful at the photos of our city’s murder victims. The play moved very quickly and soon our first Cultural Treasure Hunt experience had ended.

What an experience for all of our participants. One of the student participants, shy tenth-grader Daria, best summed up the experience: “I am not sure what I want to do…but I am here to explore…this [event] makes everything so much more clear than the class and books and it’s fun!” 

Stay tuned to this blog for the second Philadelphia Academies Restaurant and Hospitalities Cultural Treasure Hunt program in March, 2010.
-By Maureen Zug


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