[We would like to thank our Cooking at the Club sponsor International Flavors and Fragrances for making these two days of events possible.]
On a cold, crisp day in January of 2010, we received an email from the Boys and Girls Club Qatar Center at Pass Christian. Inside, there was an enticing request…“Could CulinaryCorps help bring their state-of-the-art kitchen to life?” It was a great question about a truly beautiful culinary space. Donated to Pass Christian by the country of Qatar after Hurricane Katrina, no expense was spared to create the teaching kitchen. Everything gleams. But yet it faced a sad reality. Despite the state-of-the-art facility, there was no cooking equipment, no programming, and therefore, no kids cooking good food.
CulinaryCorps took the challenge to change all of that.
(The “before” photo. Photo credit Boys and Girls Club of Pass Christian.)
Over the course of 9-months, a cooking class curriculum was slowly and meticulously built. CulinaryCorps Curriculum Coordinator, April Neujean, worked closely with a local community panel and our leadership team to design an 8-week after-school cooking class series entitled “Cooking at the Club.” To guide us in our development, we came up with the following mission:
“Cooking at the Club (C@C) aims to encourage the youth of the Gulf Coast to get involved in their health, their community, and their own futures by getting involved in the kitchen. We hope that the lessons learned in the C@C program (including organization, budgeting, communication, teamwork, critical thinking, and the importance of hospitality) will inspire participants to explore their creative potential behind the stove and beyond.”
(Our fearless leaders and community panel members, Sydney and Steve Wall, board members of the Boys & Girls Club Pass Christian. Photo credit CulinaryCorps)
The hands-on cooking classes are designed to engage students as young as fifth grade behind the stove. Instead of relying on the usual pizza, burgers, and mac ‘n’ cheese line-up, this course is a back-to-basics exploration of a variety of useful cooking techniques, a celebration of the local bounty of Mississippi, and a common-sense approach to healthy eating. It is a “whole foods” and “real recipes” approach to teaching kids to cook—no watered down “kid friendly” versions of the recipes allowed—and incorporates a local food and foodways theme each week. To bring it all home, the final class culminates in a shared dining experience with friends and family.
(Big ‘ol blues. Photo credit Allie Carroll Photography.)
But along with writing the curriculum, CulinaryCorps also made a promise to travel to Mississippi to bring the pages of “Cooking at the Club” to life. Which means on day three we loaded up the vans and headed out with the rising sun. Our job during our two days at the club was to launch the program for students, supporters, and funders in a series of TV-show style cooking and tasting events. Our aim was two-fold. To train the instructors that will be executing the curriculum as well as pump everyone up for the program starting in January.
(A message on the coast. Photo credit CulinaryCorps.)
After an afternoon of kitchen prep, on Friday afternoon we presented a 90-minute program for over 60 VIP members of the Boys & Girls Club community including board members, media, and potential funders. (While the dish was presented on stage, the crowd would be served a tasting portion of the recipe to nosh on.)
(Soon to be soup. Photo credit Allie Carroll Photography.)
The most fun part was that we assigned the students taking the class in January 2012 to be our CulinaryCorps sous chefs. Donning chef hats and lots of stage presence, they helped our CulinaryCorps cooks stir, snip, and blend a selection of the dishes from the “Cooking at the Club” classes. They all really helped but the “bam!” into the show.
(Getting the sous chefs lined up and ready for the evening. Photo credit Allie Carroll Photography.)
(Our fearless kitchen leader. Photo credit Allie Carroll Photography.)
Among the many healthful recipes made and sampled, there were clear favorites of the crowd…a whole grain pasta with Gulf shrimp and zucchini, Mississippi blueberry muffins made with oats, and pecan-crusted catfish tenders…baked not fried. The crowd left with full bellies and lots of excitement for the program to come.
(Mississippi Blueberry-Oat Muffins. Photo credit Allie Carroll Photography.)
One student sous chef asked for “the class to start tomorrow” while another politely requested that we move into the Boys & Girls Club. She figured with housing squared away, we could stay forever. We were touched when one adult in the audience asked if she could take the Cooking at the Club class series. (We certainly agree that parents could benefit as well.) It was equally thrilling to hear that other adults in the crowd were keen on becoming potential funders.
(Waiting in the wings. Photo credit Allie Carroll Photography.)
With our first day’s mission accomplished, day two was really just day one on steroids. More dishes! (Fruit and honey smoothies. Homemade yogurt ranch dressing). More challenging flavors! (Chicken Noodle Pho. Spinach-pesto whole-wheat pita pizzas.) And lots more audience participation since students and their families were all invited.
(Spinach Pesto power! Photo credit Allie Carroll Photography.)
(The finished Spinach Pesto pizza on whole-wheat pitas. Mmmmmm. Photo credit Allie Carroll Photography.)
As families arrived around 5pm, Chef Minh explored a “Test Your Taste Buds” activity asking them to identify a variety of recipe ingredients through sight, touch, and taste. (Everyone had a giggle when one student said star anise looked like a starfish belly button.) As over 60 club members settled into their seats, six families were selected from the audience to come up behind the stage and help create the dishes with the CulinaryCorps chefs.
(Spice is nice. Photo credit Allie Carroll Photography.)
(Breading the catfish “fingers”. Photo credit Allie Carroll Photography.)
Once again, audience members were given a taste of all the dishes and the students weren’t shy with their opinions. “Excellent!” “Delicious!” and “Sooooooooo good!” were common, and those reactions marked a glorious change of attitude. At the beginning of the show, eating “healthy” food elicited few “popcorn fingers” (aka: raised hands with wiggling fingers) and several muted boos. At the end of the show there was nothing but cheers. Mission accomplished.
(Family pasta fun. Photo credit Allie Carroll Photography.)
So in addition to gifting a small grant made possible by International Flavors and Fragrances for small equipment and groceries we also spent over 324 collective manpower hours developing, writing, and launching the “Cooking at the Club” curriculum. (And threw in about 60 cookbooks to get a kitchen library up and running!)
When it is all tallied, it’s about a $30,000 package that CulinaryCorps was able to donate to the club. Our largest gift to date!
By the weekend’s end, we were both proud and honored to leave the “Cooking at the Club” curriculum behind for our new friends, big and small, “down at the Club.” We thank board member Sydney Wall for enticing us with the challenge these many months ago, and look forward to hearing about your successes (and popcorn fingers) to come.
(Popcorn fingers in action. Photo credit Allie Carroll Photography.)