Teaching Teens the Joys of Cooking, Higher Ground Provides Valuable Job Skill TrainingPublished Thursday, June 23, 2011
Emily Santos appears just as my fork clinks on the plate, the last bite of paillard de poulet a savory memory in my mouth. “Finished, sir?” she asks, politely.
I nod and, with all the savoir faire of a professional waitress, Santos whisks the plates, silverware and breadbaskets off the table in seconds. You’d think she’d been waitressing for years, instead of just the two weeks that she’s attended Higher Ground, a culinary arts program for teens operated by Abundant Living Citi Church in Allapattah and funded by The Children’s Trust.
Santos and a number of her girlfriends joined the program at the invitation of her friend Brittany Peña, who attends Citi Church. The teens were curious, but had no idea what to expect.
“I’m afraid of the stove,” Peña admits, laughing. “Imagine, a few days ago I had to prepare a meal – I was lost, but the chefs provided an outline and I was able to do it. It was really good for me.”
“I wanted to find out more about cooking. Who knows what job I'll want to do? And one day, I’ll be a mother, and mothers obviously have to know how to cook,” added Keana Mercado, who starts high school next year at Coral Gables Senior High.
The Higher Ground summer camp runs daily for three weeks in the summer from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The teens are instructed by chefs from the Miami Culinary Institute on the fine art of food preparation, service and general hospitality. They tend to an urban garden to grow their own herbs and some vegetables, visit the institute to use its state-of-the-art kitchen facilities, take field trips to area restaurants and even as far away as Homestead to see how microgreens are grown and harvested. The learning extends from the cutting board to a a wide range of potential career choices in the culinary field.
Every few months, Higher Ground stages a “Bistro” at the church and invites the community to a dinner and movie that showcase the program and its youthful talent. And the meal? Ooh-la-la. The menu for tonight’s Bistro is French – from the aperitifs to the chicken paillard with ratatouille sauce to the vanilla cupcake with raspberry crème anglaise. There’s not an empty seat in the “restaurant.” Tables are decorated with red-and-white checkered tablecloths with figurines of the Eiffel Tower. Diners enjoy their multi-course meal while watching “Ratatouille,” an animated film with a clear message: Cooking is a joyful passion.
“It all comes together for Bistro night – the kids get so excited,” said Dianna Rivera, vice president for Citi Church’s youth programs. A number of community leaders attended the last Bistro and she explains that community support has been critical to Higher Ground’s success. For its first two years, students met and utilized the professional kitchen facilities at the nearby Police Benevolent Association. In return, Higher Ground prepared food and catered the association’s monthly meetings. In the past year, a new partnership with the Miami Culinary Institute has been baking.
“I can’t believe they opened the door so wide for us,” Rivera says. Institute director John Richard has endorsed our curriculum and is working to develop one even more aligned with the institute’s standards so that our kids will be eligible for college credit.
Chefs Jose Nieves, Trey Warren and others volunteer hours of their time and expertise to work with the Higher Ground students, but the “master chef” is program coordinator Jennifer Coronel. Like all good recipes, Higher Ground was copied and given her own personal touch.
Coronel was finishing an education degree and working in Palo Alto, California when a friend of her boss’ stopped by to tell him about El Cajon, a program that was teaching teens to cook.
“The idea was awesome, it combined two of my favorite things: food and working with teens,” Coronel remembers. She wrote her thesis paper on the project and learned its details. Soon after she moved to Miami, she found the church and shared her dream with Rivera.
“We like to help young people fulfill their dreams – it’s our vision and her dream fit with our core values,” Rivera says. “But it was such a crazy idea, we didn’t think we would get funded.”
The Children’s Trust has funded Higher Ground as a youth development program for the past three years in recognition of its value to providing quality life and vocation skills to teens, especially those in impoverished neighborhoods.
Coronel has forged partnerships around the city. The Meat Market Restaurant on Miami Beach has sponsored the last two graduation meals. “This expensive restaurant treats the kids to a meal, then they’re all sitting out on Lincoln Road – most of them have never even been there before. It’s amazing,” Coronel says.
Lately she’s pursued a closer collaboration with a project at Johnson & Wales University’s Culinary Arts program that targets the many food trucks that circulate the county.
“Lots of our kids are getting their foot in the door at restaurants and cooking programs. They’re opening to the idea that this is the field they want to go into,” Coronel says. “Higher Ground gives them the confidence to step out into the work world.”
“I’m ready for the night of my life, been waiting for it all day,” says Maria Vasquez, who drove drown from Miramar with her husband George and children, Nicole, 7 and Jonathan,1. Members of the church, the Vasquezes attended their first Bistro a few months ago. “Movie, great food, and you can’t beat the price,” says Vasquez, “and the food is amazing.” She’s invited friends who have come also to share the bargain fare.
Joan and Burt Salomon, parents of Brittany, came to see why their daughter has suddenly become so fond of the kitchen.
“Brittany said to me, Ma, I’m going to try it and see if I like it – and now she loves it,” says her mother, originally from Nicaragua. “This program is so good for the kids. It supports something in society, keeps them off the streets, teaches them to reach out to others – and they learn something new in life.”
Written by Michael R. Malone