ALAMEDA -- In a school portable building on the western side of Encinal High School's campus, young people wield knives. It is after school. If plantains had brains, they would be afraid of the blade-wielding hands inching toward them. The fruits' fate is set -- they will soon become part of a Brazilian banana cake.
The students, a small blend of smiling freshman to seniors, are Rainbow Chefs. They are more than happy to hang out in the food fragrant portable for a couple of hours after school. They are the ones, who, with a recipe, ingredients and oversight provided by the teaching chef, Chelsea Ozuna, have concocted the simmering pot of feijoada, a South American stew. The savory smells of sausage, bacon, black beans, chili pepper and spices are the backdrop to this culinary workshop.
Twice weekly, a Rainbow Chefs class teaches these Encinal students how to cook, and how to cook with culture. The program is designed to teach them about foods from around the world, from China, Thailand and the Middle East to Africa and beyond. The students do the prep work, the mixing, chopping, heating, stirring and even the cleaning involved in the cookery.
And they love this class. They not only get credit for it, but they get dinner from it.
"There hasn't been a day when they haven't eaten everything," Ozuna said as she reminded the group that the stew on the stove didn't just smell good, but is packed with nutrition. The students, as they measure cake ingredients, hear her extoll the tasty and healthy protein that are packed into each black bean. And as the sous chefs carefully shake cinnamon into a bowl she mentions that it, too, is a healthy addition to their diets, as is the cayenne often used in South American dishes.
"They are learning something that will carry over into their lives," Ozuna said. "Into college, and working life and when they have their own families. They learn the history of foods, where foods and spices come from and the cultures of those countries."
"This is the most fun I've had all day," said student Chelsea Merino as she experienced her first moment with a flour sifter.
Sophomore Terrel Figure plans to become a professional chef. He opens a cookbook with recipes that he and his classmates have already made, including homemade pizza dough, hearty soups, Greek dishes and scores more. These students have likely already prepared more fresh food than many adults. In fact, they take the recipes home and prepare them for family dinners.
The cooking class came to the school through a grant obtained through Bay Area Community Resources, a nonprofit agency that provides a range of social services, including after-school programs.
John Fuentes, high schools program manager for the agency, said whenever he visits one of these classes, which are held in other school districts as well, he always sees smiling students. Whether they've had a bad start to their day at school or at home, they feel achievement and a sense of community in tasty group activities, he said.
Encinal Principal Kirsten Zazo said: "This innovative program provides our students with cooking skills, healthy nutrition information and life skills practice that will truly benefit them for their whole lives."