ST. PETERSBURG — It was the first question he asked the 47 kids assembled at Childs Park Recreation Center on Monday morning.
"Who is ready to go back to school?"
One limp hand in the air.
Deonte Thompson moved on, introducing his childhood friend and national phenomenon: Edouardo Jordan, St. Petersburg native, 1998 graduate of Boca Ciega High School, and the first African-American to make the cover of Food & Wine for its annual "Best New Chefs" roundup.
Like Jordan, Thompson grew up in this neighborhood, going on to study electrical engineering in college and to serve as executive director of DreamFaith Foundation, an organization aimed at empowering the country's youth by equipping them with the necessary tools to overcome life's challenges. It was DreamFaith, and Thompson, who invited Jordan to town.
Monday, Jordan was equipping kids with his secret weapon: smoked paprika. He cut up chicken, sauteed onion and bell peppers, the paprika and oregano flavoring the slow-simmered dish that would become chicken and biscuits.
But his advice went beyond knife skills.
"There are a diverse array of careers out there, things beyond entertainer or sports hero," he said. "You have to have a dream, and you have to have a goal. If it's raining outside, you can't control that. But you can have an umbrella."
Jordan, 37, graduated from the University of Florida and then Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Orlando. He has worked at some of the country's best restaurants, from Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York and the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., to the Herbfarm in Woodinville, Wash. Last year, he opened his own restaurant in Seattle called Salare, an ode to Southern cooking.
"I'm a product of Childs Park," he said. "I went to Azalea Middle School and the lightbulb came on. It was like one of my teachers punched me it the stomach when she said, 'You have potential, but you've got to make better life decisions.' My friends were doing stupid things, skipping school, stealing. Some even died."
While he checked the biscuits, he told the kids about his high school experience. He ran track and cross country, played football and wrestled, took AP classes. And once he got to UF, "I surrounded myself with people different from me, people who made me feel uncomfortable, in a good way. People who made me push."
The night before, Jordan had teamed up with old friend Ferrell Alvarez, putting together an eight-course meal at Alvarez's Rooster & the Till in Tampa for an elite group of 39 diners who each paid $180 to hobnob with the Seattle superstar. Jordan knew Alvarez from working together at Mise en Place years ago; Mise's Marty Blitz was in attendance Sunday night.
But the next morning, no money changed hands as the kids lined up to try Jordan's chicken and biscuits.
"The chicken is cooked real good, and this is a good biscuit," said Herbert Wright, 14, a student at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School.
Jordan was hoping to nourish the group with a lot more than biscuits.
In the culinary world, he said, plenty of African-American chefs have loosened things, pushed against the glass ceiling.
"I was the one who ran all the way through."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.