To read Chef Whitney’s moving account of his experience as a CulinaryCorps volunteer, check out the link below:
During the trip, our daily updates focused on the food we created during our week- long stay on La Isla Encanta. A CulinaryCorps trip, however, is a two-way street allowing our volunteer chefs to share their food with the community, and the community to share their food with us. Weaved in throughout the week are opportunities to immerse ourselves in the cuisine of the people we have come to assist, and in doing so, understand a major source of history, identity and pride. Puerto Rico proved to be a wonderful culinary adventure all week, and we wanted to capture some of our experiences in this journal.
Descriptions and pictures after the jump:
Today’s CulinaryCorps volunteer mission required juggling several moving parts.
First, we planned to create 150 meals for the homeless population in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Second, we aimed to connect with the Culinary Arts students at InterAmerican University, who so graciously let us crash their kitchen for the project. These wonderful students, led by Silvio and our current volunteer Brenda, fundraised over $1,200 through on-campus bake sales and barbecues in support of this CulinaryCorps trip.
And third, we sought to teach fundamental kitchen techniques to the clients of Iniciativa Comunitaria, an expansive non-profit organization that operates over 30 programs to aid homeless, drug addicts, sex workers, and children living in violence. Among their many programs, Iniciativa Comunitaria has established a number of half-way homes that lend services and support to individuals in need. Although these half-way homes have been hugely helpful in many ways, they have suffered from one important drawback: upon exiting the program, many of the individuals do not know how to cook for themselves — not even an egg! We believed the CulinaryCorps team could help with that.
We started our day by getting to know the InterAmerican students and preparing our educational action stations. Each station was assigned a different recipe, which would become dishes for feeding San Juan’s homeless as well as today’s volunteers. The recipes were tailored to showcase to the Iniciativa trainees basic cooking skills such as baking, sautéing, and knife skills, all using ingredients that were affordable, accessible, and healthful.
Our menu for the day included:
- Fresh Greens with Vinaigrette and Homemade Croutons
- Bacon and Cheddar Cornbread with a Selection of Compound Butters
- Tomato and Cucumber Pico de Gallo
- White Bean and Roasted Pepper Chili
- Oatmeal-Walnut (Whole Wheat) Chocolate Chip Cookies
After a couple of hours of setup, the participants from Iniciativa arrived and everyone got to work. Within three hours, we had enough food to feed us heartily and plenty of servings for the Iniciativa volunteers to distribute later this evening.
As the late-afternoon sun receded behind the palms, everyone gathered around one long communal table to share a common meal.
As we ate, we reflected on a statement by of one of today’s participants, who is also the cook in the half-way home he lives in:
“You do not cook for a paycheck. You cook for love.”
This aphorism precisely captures our sentiments about this week of culinary volunteer work. Our experience on this beautiful island has been truly singular . . . we look forward to another fruitful CulinaryCorps trip to Puerto Rico!
Up and out well before dawn, our team of CulinaryCorps chefs pulled into the Ceiba airport just as the sun’s first rays hit the tarmac. A twelve-minute plane ride later and we stepped out onto the lush tropical island of Vieques.
The first cargo off the plane? Bags and bags of fresh vegetables.
Our CulinaryCorps volunteer work for the day was focused on Todos Los Santos Community Center, an education enrichment environment for two- to five-year-olds living on the island. The Center is run by a group of inspiring women and is sponsored by VIDAS, a non-profit organization devoted to the welfare of underserved children suffering from hunger, illness, and abuse.
The big annual project for each VIDAS Center is a handcrafted “food portfolio” that the children themselves help create. Last year, the theme was beans; this year, it’s vegetables. The students and teachers work year-round to compile recipes, art projects, drawings, and stories, each judged by a panel of local culinary experts. Our day with the group was the kick-off for their vegetable exploration.
The CulinaryCorps chefs broke into three teams, each tackling a different recipe that expounded on our day’s theme “Saboreando el Arcoiris” (Savor the Rainbow). Our three menu items for the day:
- Rainbow Veggie Wraps
- Pot-of-Gold Salad with Shake-It Dressing
- Carrot Cake Smoothie and Green Goddess Juice
With all the fruits and vegetables displayed and labeled, the stations became as colorful as the rainbows that often grace this beautiful island. And soon enough, the smallest cooks CulinaryCorps chefs have ever work with arrived, many with their parents and siblings.
From the time they walked through the door, it was a vegetable whirlwind!
Each station was twenty minutes long, with students rotating on to the next station to make every dish. Tasting the veggies on hand was an important part of the lesson, and we encouraged all the students to become part of our “one bite club.” If they did choose to nibble on something new, they earned a sticker for their chef hat and a round of high fives and applause.
Given the lack of affordable access to many fresh vegetables on Vieques, we weren’t sure how many students would be tempted to take a bite of beet or sweet potato, or take a a sip of celery juice and carrot puree. Happily, we were blown away by their willingness to try almost everything we set before them! And it was not beginner’s luck, as session after session over 75 students and parents in total explored every vegetable with gusto (admittedly, with the occasional and polite spit-up).
As we were in the midst of our last session, washing dishes with cafeteria cook Carmen, she said that she had never seen the students eat what they were eating today—and that she would know, as she urges them to eat their vegetables every day. With a sly smile, she said that today she could feel that things were about to change for the better.
In all, a true testament to the difference that one cargo load of vegetables—and twelve sticker-happy chefs—can make.
Hogar Ruth, a non-profit organization in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, is committed to saving lives by sheltering women experiencing domestic abuse. They welcome anyone seeking a safe haven into their 90-day facility, and their efforts help reduce the rising mortality rate of women who die at the hands of someone they love. Often, the women and their children arrive at Hogar Ruth with only the clothes they are wearing, with no one to turn to except the kindness of people they do not know. When CulinaryCorps organizers first touched base with Hogar Ruth last year, we asked if there was any way we could help further their noble mission.
As it turned out, a team of chefs was exactly what they needed.
As so many of us cooks dream to do one day, Hogar Ruth wanted to create a cookbook of beloved recipes. They hoped to draw from the knowledge and experience of their in-house kitchen, the repertoires of the women they serve, and the board members who support the organization. Beyond a mere collection of recipes, the final product is intended to serve as a handbook for these women when they move out of the facility. Amidst the recipes will be emergency numbers, steps to break the cycle of violence, and advice for putting a family in a safer space, both mentally and physically. Every woman who leaves Hogar Ruth will receive a copy.
The CulinaryCorps volunteers were up for the challenge. Shortly after arriving in the morning and unpacking two vans full of groceries, our volunteer chefs paired up with the women of Hogar Ruth to embark on a day of recipe capturing, testing, and eating.
Many of these women are struggling with ongoing violence in their lives, and we were prepared for them to be uncommunicative, even disengaged, with a group of strangers waltzing into their temporary home. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Food has a way of connecting people like no other medium can — within minutes we were listening to shared stories about one woman’s sorely missed comfort food from her hometown overseas, and another woman’s favorite holiday treat from her grandmother.
As the CulinaryCorps co-leaders headed out to shop for the necessary ingredients, the teams began to re-create several recipes submitted by board members of Hogar Ruth. Our mission was to test these recipes — and tweak them if necessary — until they were cookbook-ready.
After a few hours of cooking, we had a spectacular lunch on our hands in the aptly named “Café Ruth”:
- Ensalada de Atun
- Ensalada de Chayote
- Beef Marinara
- Arroz con Cebolla
- Pollo al Mango
- Budin de Pan
- Quesadilla Saladorena
Steady work began again promptly at 2pm as the teams set out to test and refine the women’s own recipes so they too could find a home in the cookbook. Meanwhile, the children in the facility donned paper chef hats, rolled up their sleeves, and started cooking as well. Their first creation was a sweet dessert called a Quesadilla Saladorena, using a surprising ingredient, pancake mix. Then they moved on to homemade play-doh, sculpting, and shaping all sorts of wonderfully artistic sculptures that graced our buffet table that afternoon.
Finally, in the cool breeze of the outdoor gazebo, the children learned to make pizza dough from scratch. Mixing and kneading, they turned their hard work into individual pizzas topped with fresh vegetables, cheese, and the class favorite, pepperoni. Since oven space was at a premium, we grilled the pizzas outside. The hands-down winner was the “Puerto Rican Pizza” that boasted a layer of sofrito, queso blanco, and fresh cilantro. Pizza joints of the world, take note!
After a couple of hours in the kitchen, we wrapped up with another beautiful meal full of very traditional Puerto Rican foods:
- Ensalada con Aderezo de Mojo
- Mofongo con Camarones y Carne Frita
- Alcapuria de Carne
- Pastelon de Yuca y Calabaza
- Macarones con Pollo
- Tacos de Churrasco
- Bolitas de Chocolate y Coco
- Frescas Son Chocolate
Midway through the day, we were chatting over the cutting boards, and one chef mentioned that the CulinaryCorps chefs volunteering this week in Puerto Rico “are all so different but the same.” This truism could be extended to the women and children we worked with at Hogar Ruth as well. We all come from different backgrounds, and our views on the world may not necessarily coincide. But food? Food brings us one and all to the table: smiling, joyous, and hopeful.
CulinaryCorps volunteers have never enjoyed a warmer, more delicious welcome than we did today, as we were greeted by the Sapientis students in the Culinary and Pastry Arts program at Albert Einstein High School in San Juan.
Armed with pasta machines and our knives, we walked into the culinary classroom at 8am ready to hit the ground running, but were stopped short when we saw the sweet spread displayed before us.
Ham croquettes . . . sweet biscuits with pineapple cream cheese . . . banana cake . . . guava pastries . . . frosted cake with sprinkles. All for us! And ALL made by the students themselves.
It didn’t take much convincing for us to put down our knives and dig right in.
In fact, it is these very baked goods that keep the Culinary Arts program afloat at the school. Under the watchful eye of their incredible instructor, Ms. O’Neill, the students bake and sell their goods to their peers, earning money for equipment, supplies, and even chef coats. To see this kind of pride displayed by 10th, 11th, and 12th graders is humbling. Many in the industry take for granted the fact that side towels are a luxury, not a right, and that chef hats are a badge of honor, not a mere accessory.
From the outset, we could see from that these students had real culinary souls.
After introductions amidst the groaning plates of sweets, we broke the group into teams, each consisting of two CulinaryCorps chefs and five culinary students. The task for the day? To make a trio of classic recipes: fresh egg pasta, homemade marinara sauce, and salad greens with balsamic vinaigrette. Yet, after two and a half hours of concentrated work, what each team created was anything but classic . . . creativity was the word of the day!
In addition to the traditional fettucine and angel hair, teams prepared:
- Herbed Orecchiette
- Calabaza Ravioli
- Spinach Tortellini
- And even the ham croquettes reappeared in an imaginative take on a ravioli!
Once the dishes were plated and garnished, they were served family style at brightly colored tables lined with hibiscus flowers. Slurped elbow-to-elbow by students and chefs alike, the noodles were a hugely delicious success.
We learned during our planning of this project that the class is hoping to start a kitchen garden in the spring. To end the workshop and thank the students for their dedication to the day and to the program, we gave the class an indoor “marinara garden” starter kit with tomato and basil seeds as well as an array of culinary herbs. With any luck, these plants will be thriving by the summer!
Finally, after snapping photos and exchanging e-mails, the CulinaryCorps team had one hour to clean and reset for the second group of students. The fun repeated itself and we were equally impressed with their focus, enthusiasm, and creativity.
We have to thank Sapientis for connecting us with the students of Albert Einstein. A local non-profit that operates in partnership with at-risk student populations, Sapientis works to foster leadership, self-respect and community involvement. Organizations like these are helping to change the face of education for underserved populations.
During our wrap-up sessions, we left the students with our greatest pieces of advice:
Work Hard. Think Smart. And always cook from your heart.
One student nodded solemnly; another raised his hand and asked, “So you’ll be back next year?” We couldn’t think of any sweeter words to hear — we’re already looking forward to our return visit!
This is the first of our posts relaying our day-to-day CulinaryCorps volunteer efforts in Puerto Rico. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for tomorrow’s adventures!
Bill’s Kitchen is a chef’s dream. The kitchen itself could hold an army, and the walk-in refrigerator is roomier than most Manhattan apartments. But, best of all, the staff have hearts bigger than both combined.
In operation for over 16 years, Bill’s Kitchen was founded in memory of a beloved son lost by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. From a few dozen homemade meals made each month in the 1990s, to thousands of meals created each week in the aughts, Bill’s Kitchen remains committed to nourishing those living with HIV/AIDS: mind, body and soul.
With the CulinaryCorps volunteer team assembled and ready for action, we started our day with a taste test. The Bill’s Kitchen staff informed us that although some of their dishes are very popular with the clients, others have lost favor over time. Our task was to identify what was going wrong in those recipes (was it the flavor? the texture?) and then fix it. Or, if the staff agreed, replace the recipe with something new for the monthly meal line-up.
But there was a catch:
Every dish created had to be capable of being frozen first, and then reheated (usually in a microwave in the client’s house). What’s more, all dishes had to be low in sodium, spice, and fat (aka: no butter, little oil, and no bacon). From a chef’s dream . . . to a chef’s worst nightmare.
Nevertheless, with the encouragement and help of the two full-time cooks and five full-time nutritionists on the Bill’s Kitchen staff, the CulinaryCorps team pitched in to start recipe testing and creation. In short order, the joint crew had created a brand new portfolio of dishes:
- Fresh Basil Marinara Sauce
- Pasta Nicoise with Tuna and Red Potatoes
- Lentil and Mint Soup
- Quinoa, Bean and Corn Salad with Red Pepper Dressing
- Basil, Parsley and Walnut Pesto Chicken Thighs
- Pork Sancocho (Puerto Rican tuber stew)
- Thai Lemongrass-Coconut Soup
- Cilantro and Sunflower Seed Pesto
- Cream of Carrot and Tarragon Soup
- Sweet and Sour Chicken with Pineapple
And just for fun…
- Lemon Mini-Poundcakes
- Butternut Crunch
Amid the chopping, stewing, and stirring, CulinaryCorps volunteers also conducted a series of preplanned workshops to help educate the staff at Bill’s Kitchen about basic kitchen practices, including:
- Knife Skills
- Cooking Pasta and Rice for Freezing
- Pesto Creation
- Thickening Soups
- Baking 101
By the end of the day, things came full-circle as the Bill’s Kitchen staff taste-tested our own recipes. Fortunately, our creative trial-and-error experiments yielded some great successes that, with luck, will be served to the clients of Bill’s Kitchen in the near future.
Best of all, our presence was tremendously appreciated by the resident staff. One of the nutritionists announced to the crowd that in the four months she has passionately labored at Bill’s Kitchen, “Today was the best day.” A smile lit up her face, and we felt it in our hearts.
A huge THANK YOU to our corporate sponsors who are helping support our upcoming trip to Puerto Rico.
We have been tremendously lucky to receive monetary and in-kind donations at the “Friends” contribution level from the following corporations:
La Hacienda Foods: A wonderful speciality grocery store in the San Juan Area.
SM Seafood: An exceptional seafood purveyor in the Santa Monica area.
Sysco – Santa Monica: A generous contributor to our efforts.
The Dumpling: A Seasonal Guide: Our favorite cookbook of the year!
Whole Foods Market Bowery: The supplier of fabulous gifts for our project partners and chefs. Details to come later so we don’t spoil the surprise!
World Wide Produce: Supplying Southern CA and Las Vegas with pristine produce.
We thank all of our SPONSORS who have supported us over the years. Your generosity has traveled further than any of us will ever know!
Our upcoming trip to Puerto Rico is by far the most ambitious trip to date. Our individually catered programming delves deep into the educational mission of our organization. Our biggest motivator for these events? The project partners themselves! We could not have taken on these incredibly exciting challenges without their support and enthusiasm.
For a small taste of our upcoming week of culanthropy, we’ve consolidated our trip itinerary below:
Sunday 1/31 Arrival
Guavate Roast Pig Route Road Trip and Traditional “Christmas Dinner” in Cayey.
Monday 2/1 Bill’s Kitchen
Created in 1992, Bill’s Kitchen creates over 3,000 frozen meals per week for residents living with HIV/AIDS. Our day will focus on troubleshooting a selection of their industrial-size, healthy menu items for efficiency, economy and taste – a recent problem for the kitchen. Simultaneously, we will be working side by side with the full-time kitchen staff and nutritionist team to teach them requested culinary basics including an herb exploration workshop, and protein cooking times and temperature lesson. The goal is to equip with the staff with the basic tools to make future improvements to the meals well after we depart.
Tour of Plaza del Mercado de Santurce with Slow Food Puerto Rico. Healthy cooking class with Slow Food chef and naturalist, Rebecca Mendez of Afrodita Catering.
Tuesday 2/2 Sapientis
Sapientis creates positive learning environments for youth at-risk in Puerto Rico. All programs encourage self-respect and community leadership. At Albert Einstein High School in Barrio Obrero, a culturally rich but underserved area of the city, Sapientis has set up a three-year baking and pastry program for 60 students ages 14-17. CulinaryCorps will be be hosting cooking workshops (one for each grade) that will focus on the creation of fresh pasta and traditional Italian tomato sauce. The day will start with an exploration of the flavors in the marinara and an exchange of seeds/plants to create a “sauce garden” in their soon to be open school garden. Students will be divided into small teams to work with the chefs in creating sauce and pasta dough from scratch. At the end of each workshop, students and chefs will sit down to share their meal which will be rounded out by salad from a local hydroponic farm. For the final hour of the day, all three grades will meet with the chefs in a panel discussion on careers in the culinary industry.
An taste exploration of the Spanish influence on Puerto Rican cuisine at Cien Vinos.
Wednesday 2/3 Hogar Ruth
Founded in 1983, Hogar Ruth is a safe-haven for women and children escaping the cycle of violence in their homes. CulinaryCorps will work with the residents of this women and children’s shelter to create a cookbook of family and staff recipes for their fundraising efforts. Activities will include recipe capture, testing and serving a sit-down dinner for all the residents. This book will also double as a “covert” abuse prevention manual, a seemingly innocuous cookbook that the aggressor will not realize is a resource for the woman in need. We will also be creating a children’s cooking activity for the youth living in the facility.
An evening free to explore Old San Juan and environs.
Thursday 2/4 VIDAS
VIDAS believes in early-childhood intervention through the creation and management of positive learning spaces. These community centers impact youth most at-risk for abuse and educational under-achievement. CulinaryCorps will be traveling to the island of Vieques to launch a series of healthy cooking classes for youth ages 2-14 and their parents. In accordance with national nutritional guidelines, CulinaryCorps will host a Saborea el Arcoiris (“eat the rainbow”) activity that explores fruits and veggies and allows the students themselves to turn them into a simple, kid-friendly, dish. Three workshops of one-hour each will help break-up the activities by age-group.
Friday 2/5 Iniciativa Comunitaria
Founded in 1992, IC helps provide social services to struggling populations in San Juan including the homeless and drug-addicted as well as sex workers and residents living with HIV/AIDS. In partnership with the Inter-American University culinary program, CulinaryCorps will work with a select group of the IC population from all service areas to teach basic kitchen skills and create a balanced, budget and tasty meal for them to execute at home. The meal will be shared by the students and chefs, and packed up for distribution throughout San Juan. Meals will be delivered from 10pm-112am to the homeless populations by the chefs and IC volunteers from a mobile serving van.
Saturday 2/6 Loiza
Food and cultural exchange with the Mayor’s Office of the Township of Loiza. Insiders trip to explore the flavors and culture of Piñones and Loiza including a private cooking lesson.
JUST ADDED! Possible community-wide project involvement providing relief to Haiti including canned good collection, packing and shipping.
Read on after the jump as we answer the question “Why a CulinaryCorps trip to Puerto Rico?”