Written by Catherine Pickup for Reality Kitchen Nonprofit
Two students arrive, via public transit, on a wet, weary morning here at Reality Kitchen. They are carrying with them a lifetime of difficult and painful challenges. Both are young adults who for various reasons, and like so many others, have spent most of they’re lives shifted from residence to residence, town to town, state to state. They are moved in and out of different foster homes; educational programs; lock down facilities. Some have endured surgeries to repair physical complications that they were born with; most are on specialized educational plans and all have filed in and out all sorts of therapy and counseling sessions.
These two put down they’re belongings (sometimes this literally means everything meaningful that belongs to them packed into a rucksack… a hymnal from a funeral service from years ago, a time when the family was all together, some miscellaneous odds and bobs and gadgets, tattered photos, and more; sometimes a rather weighty load to be lugging about!)
Greetings are exchanged; we make small talk about the weekend. Brock, the ever-affectionate friend (of the canine sort), brings about smiles and absorbs hugs often helping lift some of the emotional heaviness that students may arrive with. Upon entering the kitchen each student proudly puts on an apron, and performs the ritual hand washing ceremony that is required before doing anything else. They each have a checklist to follow and are eager to find out what they will be making today.
The three-compartment sink is filled in accordance with the “Food Handlers Guide”, dishes are put away and countertops are wiped and sanitized. Now we are ready for the day’s experiments. Today we will be making split pea and potato turnovers and some apple spice cake. There is a lot involved in the making of these two recipes, we will begin with the turnovers. One student works on the pastry while the other one works on the filling. They look over the recipe and begin gathering to they’re workstations the equipment and ingredients that will be needed. There’s a cutting board, a peeler, potatoes, carrots, split peas, measuring cups, spoons, a pastry brush, a rolling pin.
For the most part they find everything independently but know to ask if needed and are encouraged to try and figure out as much as they can on they’re own, often they will help each other out, which is great teamwork!
As things start getting diced, combined, sautéed, simmered, stirred, whisked, rolled and crafted there is a feeling of lightness and fun as well as concentration, learning and responsibility. Delightful aromas fill the air and there is a soul nurturing warmth wafting around that comes from creating food together. At times, staff will do a demonstration and then students will give it a try, often discovering a method that works better for them! It is great to see students build a rapport with the food and equipment, or discover that they like something they thought they wouldn’t.
Everything that is taught in the kitchen is done with respect for each individual’s abilities as well as respect for the food and the kitchen. Throughout the day all kinds of the public domain wander in and out of Reality Kitchen for varying reasons. Sometimes they will try some of the goods that the students are making, which gives the students an opportunity to practice interpersonal skills as well as safe food service and food handling skills.
While the turnovers are baking, students work from they’re checklist washing dishes, cleaning food prep areas, storing and labeling any extra food items; all the while keeping an eye on the time and the turnovers. The excitement builds as the senses are delighted with the alluring scent of baked potato and lentil stew wrapped in flakey, buttery pastry. Finally the oven mitts are put on and the golden turnovers are carefully taken out of the oven. There is such a look of pride on the faces of the students as they see and test they’re handiwork.
Now, it’s time to launch into making the cake!
We have been testing and adapting the curriculum and seeking input and partnerships with other organizations, educators, and restaurant owners. We want to give our students a good solid foundation so they will have the confidence and skills to take with them to potential places of employment in the community. Whether it is a very specialized task that they can fulfill in a business or a whole position. Our goal is to help them excel at being the very best they can. We offer a learning environment where they get the focused, adapted teaching and hands on experience they need while practicing in a commercial kitchen that serves the public.
The mop is rinsed and squeezed out one last time and reunited with the bucket to rest; dirty cloths are placed in they’re special bath to soak. Before turning off the lights the students glance around making sure everything is how it should be; the kitchen gleams with the satisfaction that comes from a full day of productive work and activity. Belongings are rounded up and we chatter about having to walk to the bus stop in the now pounding rain mixed with hail. Armored with rain gear, or lack there of, they head back out to they’re respective lives.
We are truly grateful for the opportunity to do this work and gain so much from the experience. It is later that staff and family report back to us how, filled with a sense of self -worth and accomplishment, the students described what they learned and made at Reality Kitchen today.