“Relax and Have Fun”
As many of you know, I am the Program Director of The Happy Kitchen, Sustainable Food Center’s cooking and education program. In a nutshell, we train peer “Facilitators” to lead cooking and nutrition classes in communities that suffer from health disparities. Sustainable Food Center is in the midst of a Capital Campaign–we are raising $4.5 million to build an actual center for Sustainable Food Center, including a full-on teaching kitchen! (We are technically still in the “private phase” of the campaign; we hope to go “public” in May.)
As we meet with our architects and builders more frequently, reality has set in that The Happy Kitchen will finally have a kitchen. Throughout the Program’s history, the classes we have taught have been located in the community we were serving–at schools, rec centers, places of worship, libraries, etc. This model is ideal as we can teach families in their own community. However, having our own kitchen soon will boost the Program tenfold in our ability and scope. For example, about 1.5 years ago, we started offering cooking classes to the general public for a fee as we realized that far too many people do not possess the confidence, skills or knowledge to “cook from scratch”. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average person spends about 30 minutes per day in food preparation and clean up. Now just to give you something to compare it to, the same average person spends over 2.5 hours per day watching television. And did I mention that over 60% of American adults are overweight or obese?
Thus, we started offering classes open to everyone, regardless of their community affiliation or income level. The idea is that we want to teach everyone how to cook and how to eat healthyfully in an equitable manner; the revenue earned from the fee-based classes are directly pumped back into the Program to off-set education for families that do not have the means to pay. This earned income revenue stream also allows the program to not be so dependent on grant funding.
With our new “teaching kitchen” we will be greatly expanding the number and type of classes that we offer, both for free and for a fee. Lately, I have been brainstorming about how the Program will change and what our offerings to the community will be once we have the new building. We know we want to offer something much more hands on–we are limited in this scope as classes are not taught in kitchens.
In thinking about the Program’s needs I got to thinking about my own needs—what skills or knowledge would I need to help guide The Happy Kitchen in its new space? Just as I was having these thoughts I also happened to be reading Kathleen Flinn’s second book, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How A Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices Into Fearless Homecooks. After earning her culinary degree at Le Cordon Bleu Paris, Kathleen ponders over what to do with her degree—not open a restaurant—which is what most people assume you do with a degree from Le Cordon Bleu Paris. While shopping in the grocery store in her hometown of Seattle, it dawned on her—teach people how to cook! (“Wait you mean I can make Fettuccine sauce without a jar and it’s cheaper?”). What unfolds is a warming account of teaching women (yes, the study group ended up being 100% female) confidence and self-sufficiency in the kitchen.
As I read the book, I kept thinking to myself, Yes! Yes! Yes! This is exactly the direction in which I want The Happy Kitchen to go—I want us to be the most recognized “homecooking school” around. I want us to be the leader in teaching citizens of Austin how to feed oneself and one’s family in a healthful, economical and sustainable way. Furthermore, I want The Happy Kitchen to be a model for other cities who will send us their leaders to become trained so as to seed other Programs around the nation (The Happy Kitchen has replicated it’s programming in Florida, North Carolina and various places in Texas). So, not only did the Book stimulate ideas in my head for The Happy Kitchen—but it also set off ideas for me, namely that I would start the culinary program at Austin Community College!
I do not have a professional culinary background– what I know is from cooking in my youth with my mother, working in restaurants, cooking on my own as an adult and now directing a cooking education program. Reading the Book and the way the classes were taught, made me realize that I want a foundation in technique and the why of cooking in order to be a better educator and Program Director.
And this week marks my first classes—Intro to Foods (food science and “kitchen lab”) and Food Production and Planning (basically culinary math). Given my objectives, I will be wearing a very different lens than most culinary students as my goals are to incorporate my learning into the The Happy Kitchen and thus the public; I have no desire in pursuing a career in the “typical” food industry–restaurants, catering, hospitality, etc. Most of all with my studies, I wish to bring back the knowledge and comfort of a lost skill.
Now you may be wondering why turn to culinary school if you are trying to bring back a “lost skill” that lay folk possessed. Well, to be perfectly honest, going to school helps to expedite some learning. Attending classes weekly (with kitchen labs!) forces me to acquire knowledge and skills that may take years. And I should also add that in no way do I believe that culinary education is superior to what my mother or grandmother know. But, I think there are certainly techniques and food chemistry behind the things that we do that we might not know why we do it—we just do it out of habit. It’s kind of like speaking a language. One grows up speaking their mother tongue without really knowing why certain sentence structures are the way they are. However, when one studies a foreign language, one must learn the grammar along with the language to better acquire it as one does not have the opportunity (most of the time) to just live it and speak it.
Also, I have been at SFC for just about 4.5 years. Throughout my time at this wonderful organization, I have thought about going back to school for my masters—in everything from Geography, to Public Health to Public Affairs. I am kind of a dork– taking a class with 15 other people with an instructor, taking notes, practicing skills, sharing ideas, reading and then testing my knowledge–all of this I kinda like. That being said, I could probably write pages about institutionalized education and how messed up our our learning system is—everything from backwards school policies to the monitization of higher learning. But I will save that for another time. Anyway, on a personal note, I am very much excited to learn new techniques, be exposed to the food industry “from the belly of the beast” and hopefully create some lasting partnerships between Sustainable Food Center and ACC. Wish me luck!
P.S. The title of the blog is what my instructor said on the first day of Intro to Foods Class–Rock on!