One tool for keeping kids on the right path is keeping them busy and learning. Think sports, scouting, music and dance lessons. Think cooking.
After school at Jarrett Middle School, things are still hopping in a home economics classroom. Pans sizzle and appetizing aromas fill the air as preteens in aprons huddle around stove tops and hustle with sponges at rows of sinks. They wipe tables, pour water into cups, set out utensils and napkins.
In the middle of the organized chaos is chef Dale Thomas, clad in white chef’s coat and hat, shouting above the fray to offer instructions, gentle corrections and encouragement.
"No one sits down. We clean as we go," Thomas reminds a few idle participants.
It’s a typical afternoon in the Palolo school’s After-School All-Stars Hawaii cooking class, one of several classes that fill out a daily three-hour program for youths who might otherwise be left at home unsupervised. The after-school program is part of a national initiative founded by Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1992 to provide activities at middle schools with a high percentage of low-income, at-risk students.
Thomas, a chef at the Hale Koa Hotel for more than 25 years, designed the class (including recipes) and has been running it for almost five years. Other Hawaii schools have implemented his cooking model for their All-Stars programs.
"We teach habits as well as skills. We teach hygiene and nutrition as well as cooking," he said. A can of soda and chips for breakfast is not uncommon, according to Thomas.
"Some of these kids have never had a salad. The majority have never had oatmeal. When they eat it, they say, ‘This is unreal.’ I try to encourage a healthy breakfast so they can be alert while they’re learning."
Sixth-grader Emi Luo, 11, said the class has exposed her to different kinds of food.
"I get to taste a variety of things here, and at home I can teach my mom new recipes," she said. "My mom thinks I can use what I learn here for a different purpose: for a job as a cook."
THAI CHICKEN INFUSED WITH FRESH GARDEN HERBS
10 boneless/skinless chicken thighs
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat cookie sheet with nonstick spray.
Combine chicken and all ingredients except oil in bowl. Mix thoroughly.
Heat oil in pan and pan-sear chicken until golden on both sides.
Place chicken on cookie sheet and bake 15 to 20 minutes, until middle of chicken is fully cooked (or temperature is 165 degrees). Let cool 1 to 2 minutes. Drizzle with more chili sauce if desired. Serves 5 to 8.
Approximate nutritional information, per 2-thigh serving (not including added chili sauce): 350 calories, 17 g fat, 2.5 g saturated fat, 115 mg cholesterol, 1,000 mg sodium, 22 g carbohydrate, 1 g fiber, 15 g sugar, 28 g protein
Masahiro Kia, 13, an eighth-grader, said students learn a variety of practical skills.
"For chopping we learned to julienne, dice, mince and chop," he said. "If I ever want to be a chef, I know some of the basic things to do."
Each class runs 10 to 12 weeks, and at the end, students go home with a recipe book. The skills they learn often benefit the whole family.
Sonia Zabala, mother of 12-year-old Kauanoe, said the class has opened up her daughter’s world.
"Chef Thomas teaches so much more than just cooking. They discuss what it takes to make food, from gardens to chemistry. They learn to communicate. He talks to them about making something of themselves. Then they eat together," Zabala said. "Now my daughter cooks at home for us."
The higher learning resulting from the class "offers these kids that edge they need, or they will be left behind," Thomas said. "Hopefully, they’re learning not just life skills, but skills for a trade as well. Some take high school culinary classes and end up working in a restaurant. This gives them a chance to look toward the future."
Sophia Benz didn’t need the inspiration of a program to get herself into the kitchen. The 14-year-old Hawaii Kai resident is sensitive to gluten, so she decided that rather than be deprived of flour-driven treats, she would bake gluten-free versions for herself. That choice released her inner chef.
"One year I wanted to have pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, so I made it from scratch," she recalled. "The crust was gluten-free, and I liked it better than wheat. I used a rice flour, which to me has a creamier texture that gets crispy on the outside but has a chewiness on the inside.
"It was so much fun, I decided I wanted to start baking."
Less than two years later, Sophia is now turning out delicate treats that wow her friends and family.
"Her desserts are just amazing," said her mother, Ramona Benz. "I don’t know how she does it. She just seems to have a natural knack for it."
Sophia bakes "whatever I find that’s interesting and seems kind of challenging, and I like making things from scratch. When you bake from scratch, it can be a lot healthier because you can control what you put in."
In experimenting with her brownie recipe, for instance, Sophia added berries to the batter to boost its nutritional value.
"I love all sorts of berries, and I love chocolate, and people have berries with brownies, so I thought they might be good inside. So this (recipe) can become more of a muffin rather than just a brownie," she said.
One of Sophia’s aspirations for the future is to open up a pastry shop. "I don’t really like the thought of sitting behind a desk. I like to be on my feet a lot."
Her mother said Sophia does all the recipe research and baking by herself, and when she bakes she is happy.
"It all seems so effortless," Benz said. "She goes into this zone and just works. Even when we shopped for ingredients the other day, she had a smile on her face. When I asked her why, she said, ‘I’m just thinking about what I’m gonna make.’
"I think baking brings out the best in her. It’s her way of giving."
"It’s a lot of work sometimes, but it’s not stressful work. It’s relaxing," she said. "I just like the feel of baking. I like being able to create food people enjoy. It’s very satisfying."
Visit After-School All-Stars Hawaii at goo.gl/NPsDQ.
Cooks of all ages can learn from the eight youths who take center stage on the website Kids Who Love to Cook — www.kidswholovetocook.com.
The user-friendly resource offers recipe demonstrations by the kids themselves and lessons on kitchen skills such as handling a knife and blanching vegetables. It also chronicles the kids’ visits to a farmers market, a beehive and a cheese factory.
MAUI CAFE HAS KIDS COOKING LOCAL FARE
At Paia Youth and Cultural Center, a program-based, drop-in center on Maui, children run the Pa‘ia Bay Cafe where they cook “recipes from scratch with as much fresh, local and organic ingredients as possible,” said cafe program director Benjamin Rachunas.
In a two-year project, participants created a cookbook based on what the children like to eat. “Our Hanai Plate: Cultural Waves That Helped Create the Taste of Hawaii Nei” ($17.95, Mutual Publishing) features a broad range of local-style recipes, organized by ethnic origin. The recipes are accompanied by reports about the history, culture and food of the countries from which the dishes originate.
“Some kids brought family recipes,” Rachunas said. “The children have diverse backgrounds, so we decided that we wanted to reflect that.”
Here’s a recipe from “Our Hanai Plate.”
SWEET POTATO MALASADAS
1/2 tablespoon yeast
Mix yeast with melted butter, 1 teaspoon sugar, and water. Beat in eggs, salt, remaining sugar and half the flour. Mix well and let sit 10 minutes.
Add rest of flour, sweet potatoes, nutmeg and water as needed to form soft ball.
Knead well and cover dough with towel; set to rise until doubled in size.
Heat oil to 375 degrees. Make 20 equal-size balls.
Fry in heated oil until golden brown and cooked through, about 6 minutes.
Set on paper towel to cool.
Roll in sugar or shake in bag with 1/2 cup sugar.
Approximate nutritional information, per malasada: 150 calories, 7 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 75 mg sodium, 19 g carbohydrate, 2 g fiber, 4 g sugar, 3 g protein