Every summer, FamilyCook offers an opportunity for a couple dozen inner city teenagers to have a part-time paid job teaching others to cook healthy meals. Through Teen Battle Chef, these students learned to cook in their high schools and were nominated for our Summer Leadership Brigade by their TBC instructors from our partner organizations such as HealthCorps.
I developed Teen Battle Chef 10 years ago to inspire teenagers to find their path to a healthier lifestyle. Through our innovative formula employing time limits and weekly competitions, teens develop a preference to prepare their own snacks and meals using fresh ingredients. Seeing this transformation, we then took the program to the next level by exploring the teens’ capacity to influence their families and friends. With that success, the program’s scope now includes internships and job opportunities for these youths to teach others in their community.
We match them to such jobs as teaching younger children to cook and conducting cooking demos in farmers markets, among other roles. Each Tuesday, the whole group meets at a central location for a mentoring session or field trip. This week, we took them into new territory with Thai cuisine! One of our new dietetic interns (Pamela Wachrathit) is Thai and was excited to participate to be our authenticity guide for our cooking session. The TBC Alumni Mentors, who organized and co-facilitated the three- hour session, were thrilled at the results!
On the menu were three delicious Thai recipes: Green Papaya Salad; Lettuce Leaf Wrap Appetizers, and Sticky Rice with Coconut and Mango. According to our Teen Battle Chef Alumni Mentors (who just a few months back were learning to be TBCs in their own high schools), they were most surprised by the TBC students’ willingness to try all the unusual ingredients, such as dried shrimp which were, according to Mentor Liz Cordero, ‘pretty shrimpy and salty’ tasting. TBC Mentor Joel Allette was surprised that tutoring the kids on deveining shrimp moved along so speedily and successfully.
Apparently some of the ‘newness’ for the teens resulted at times in downright hilarity. When pressed to give examples, they unanimously agreed upon the moment when TBC Cheyanne reacted to the lettuce leaf wraps, which had chili rounds, pickled garlic, ginger, herbs, coconut, peanuts etc. inside. They laughed uncontrollably as they described how she was so shocked by the chili spice that hit her palate first, she ‘tried to suck in all the air in the room’ to compensate for the spices. Equally funny, they shared, was the reaction to the opening of the jar of shrimp paste which, Joel assured me, made the entire room smell like Flatbush, Brooklyn on a 100 degree day.
Of course the entire experience of working with youth (even if you’re one of our Mentors, one of which is still a high school student, albeit a very accomplished one) is chock full of proud and satisfying moments. Dante Mena our amazing musician chef, shared with me that his most gratifying moment was when the students tasted their Thai creations and ‘begged for 2nds, 3rds, and even 4ths!” For Liz, she most appreciated seeing them ‘eat something totally foreign’ and expect to like it!
Beyond the introduction of new recipes teaming with fresh ingredients, the other purpose of the day was to demonstrate how most culture’s recipes are concepts. Once mastered, they can be altered with new seasonal ingredients. This is a very important part of how we teach cooking in FamilyCook programs and it is also described step by step in our book. According to the TBC mentors, adding some blueberries to the traditional sticky rice and mango was a big hit, as were adding zucchini and radishes to the Thai papaya salad! Our Thai intern underscored this lesson as she described how her grandmother made these same dishes with her signature touch.
Photos: Courtesy David Bartolomi