By Mimosa Collins, RD Community Kitchens Northwest Program Manager
“What are we cooking today?”
That’s the question every student at Rainier Beach High School cooking club asks as they enter the kitchen on Wednesdays after school. The answer begins on two tables displaying oils and spices, produce purchased that day, and staple pantry items like beans and grains. Often an item will spark a memory and someone will say, “Remember the country we did last time? That was tasty!”
That’s how the menu is organized; students travel the world through food. With Rainier Beach High School’s rich diversity, students can share their own food culture and expertise. Many times they will say, “Can we go here next? I want to show everyone how to make this special dish!” Two weeks are spent following recipes that explore flavor profiles and cooking practices consistent with a region of their choosing.
Through this process, they also become familiar with basic dry and wet cooking methods, as well as various knife skills. The third week is free form, a time when students can follow their noses and experiment. Improvisational cooking most closely mimics real life where students come up with a dish based on what they have, rather than starting with a recipe.
Before the cooking begins, we review the main ingredients of the current region and the recipes of the day, or design a menu together. We identify all the food and why its prevalent in that area of the world, making connections to the environment or social climate. The last thing we do before breaking into groups is review safe food handling and commit to cleanup. If you cook, you eat. If you eat, you clean!
Then the 12-16 students are eager to cook and split into four stations, each fully equipped with peelers to broilers and everything in between. The first group to set up their sanitation system gets first picks of recipes and cooking begins.
The room fills with shouts of ingredients, competing with Rihanna’s latest hit and a sporadic dance move. Every so often, “Miss Mimosa, is this right?” cuts through the noise. Questions are answered by staff and students looking, sniffing and tasting.
In a matter of 90 minutes, students make a drink and three to four dishes. By 4:45 p.m., the table is set, chefs become eaters, and we discuss the food in front of us. Students share mistakes and lessons learned, hoping that their peers won’t reject their creations. Ground rules have been set to respect this vulnerable space, things like using descriptive words to describe an unfavorable taste. This often leads to creative solutions for how to improve it next time.
Seeing the impact this program has on students motivates all of us to continue to learn, grow, appreciate cultures and eat good food – and to keep opportunities like cooking club available for young people in our community. That is something we’re truly thankful for, too!