Already a community leader in promoting healthy eating and food safety, the Nutrition Center of Maine has introduced Clever Cooks, a program in which students learn to cook fresh meals for themselves and cater meals to the community. The program provides both job skills to underserved teenagers and satisfies a growing demand for fresh, seasonal food.
"People want healthy, local food and there aren't a lot of caterers doing that in our area," said Nutrition Center Director Kirsten Walter. "We've seen the impact that combining concrete skills with positive role models can have. At the same time, people were coming to our community lunches and events where we have this really good food, and they would ask, 'Can you do that for us?'"
The Nutrition Center of Maine is part of Lewiston, Maine's St. Mary's Health System, a member of Covenant Health Systems. Clever Cooks grew out of the center's successful Lots to Gardens program, which teaches young people to grow their own food in urban gardens. Every Thursday during the season, Lots to Gardens students make a family lunch for program participants and volunteers.
"We saw some of the teenagers really loved cooking good food, and they would take the recipes home and make the dishes for their families," said Walter. "That inspired us to reach those who really responded more to the cooking."
Participants, ages 14 to 20 years old, take regular classes in baking, sautéing, knife skills, food safety and other kitchen skills. Scott Johnson, the renowned chef formerly of Maine's luxury Blair Hill Inn, serves as chef-in-residence. Now that the program is in full swing, Walter hopes to recruit 16 students for six-month sessions. Clever Cooks catered 10 events in 2009 and 15 events in 2010. Walter expects a busier calendar this year.
"The students learn everything from how to make even cuts of potatoes for making a soup to making reductions," said Walter. "I call it CliffsNotes to culinary school."
Amber Thibault, 18, was one of the program's first participants. She enjoys baking, but admits chopping vegetables is not her strength. Her dream is to make movies, not muffins. Still, she likes to impress her mother, also a good cook, with her kitchen prowess.
"I've learned knife skills, how to cook an egg, which I was never any good at, and eat healthy," said Thibault. "I definitely have learned a lot more about certain vegetables and how to use spices."
Thibault earns $20 to $30 per catering job. The Clever Cooks program has been hired to cater business lunches, afternoon snacks and brunches. Most of the ingredients come from the center's gardens or nearby Maine producers.
"We don't cook a lot of fancy things, but we prepare dishes that are seasonal, local, healthy and wholesome," said Walter. "You should try the whole-wheat lasagna stuffed with veggies from our garden."
Catering income covers the cost of food and labor, but Walter stresses the goal is not to make money or generate the next crop of celebrity chefs.
"We challenge them to expand their palettes," said Walter. "But it's just not about appreciating good food. There are a lot of youths that we serve who are in transition, who aren't at home, and can't cook for themselves. That's why we didn't want it to be about making fancy food for other people, but learning how to take care of yourselves by making simple foods that are healthy."
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