The big, industrial-strength Blodgett stove blasts heat into the kitchen, but 10 teens remain cool in their busy buzz as they prep twice-baked potatoes. One, gingerly handling the nubbin of the cheddar cheese block, worries, “I’m going to grate my fingers into the cheese,” only for Chef Ian Trenwith, teacher for the program, to jokingly reply, “Fingers are okay, no nails.”
But perhaps Trenwith isn’t joking, for the students in the Teen Culinary Arts Program—which runs from February 3 to May 26 and is sponsored by Santa Barbara Parks & Recreation, the Santa Barbara Foundation, Bragg Health Foundation, and the Adelle Davis Foundation—are certainly getting their fingers deep into the world of the kitchen, from cooking to catering. This new pilot program, part of HOT (Healthy Options for Teens), is aptly billed as a “window into the life of a food chef or a special event coordinator.” What that description leaves out is just how much fun it all seems to be.
As the potatoes bake in the oven, Chef Trenwith—who owns Jolly Brothers Caterers and rents out the Westside Center’s kitchen on West Victoria Street in addition to working with the kids there—preps the teens for their first big coming out: a VIP luncheon they’ll be preparing on April 1. Grabbing a sauté pan, filling it with cooked pasta, and dabbling that with sauce, he smoothly goes into the chef’s traditional toss instead of a stir. Soon, all the students try, too, and instead of a gloppy pasta-plosion across the kitchen, things tend to go well, if often timidly. Still the effort, the joy, the accomplishment—you can’t help but see it on each student’s face.
“The kids leave school, take public busses, and try to get here as fast as they can,” explains program coordinator Anita Ho. “They’re just so excited about it. If they can’t attend, the call me and tell me they can’t make it. We have a waiting list if anyone drops out. They have to be in uniform. They can’t be screwing around with the knives. If anybody acts up, I tease them, ‘There’s a waiting list!’”
Not that Ho’s threats seem necessary to motivate the students. “I’m liking it,” said Michael Hernandez, a senior at San Marcos High School. “I’m sure it will give me a head start at the culinary program at City College. It will definitely help me in the long run. I’m hoping to take business classes in school, too, and start my own restaurant.”
His enthusiasm isn’t surprising, given Ho’s own. “Yesterday in class, we did two hours: flower arrangement, napkin folding, table-setting, and we made two dishes,” Ho explained. “The kids kept saying, ‘We need time!’ They stayed almost an hour after to finish the dishes [Caesar salad and fresh sautéed vegetables].” Ho asserts many have talked about bringing their learning home, cooking healthier and more proudly for their families.
Since this is the first year for the program, Ho admits, “I sort of made it up, based on our community resources. I knew what the kids wanted to do and looked at what City College offered. I’m very aware the kids are in school from 8:30 until 3, so I didn’t want it to be a lecture. Professionals present for 30 minutes, but the rest of the time they’re in the kitchen. Overall, the goal is to open their eyes to places they haven’t thought about where they could make food, from cruise ships to oil rigs.”
These varied lessons hit home, for student Hernandez commented how impressed he was by the napkin folding class. “You can make it fancy with a simple fold,” he said. “I went home and kept going with a paper towel and looking up instructions online.” Hernandez and his fellow classmates will have an opportunity to really show off at the course’s end in May, as they’ll prepare a dinner for their parents. Indeed, the one item Ho failed to budget for was take-home containers, as the teens have been bringing their handiwork home to share with their families regularly.
In the meantime, the students get to attend a professional caterers’ show at Earl Warren, as Jordano’s will foot the bill for their entry fees. “We’re already getting that kind of recognition,” said Ho, adding that they will also prepare food during a sail on the Condor Express. “Again, it’s real-life experience—it’s not pretend real,” Ho said. “People will be paying money to do something, and they’re relying on the kids to produce the food.”
As for the future of this delicious, nutritious, and otherwise sustaining program, Ho explained, “In our fantasy, we’ll have a beginners’ class and an advanced class next year. But this is a grant-driven program … That’s one reason we’re having the VIP luncheon, hoping they’ll see and want to continue to fund what we’ve done.”