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Tales of an Accidental Cooking Club
I didn't mean to start one at my school. Here's what happened when I did.
Last year, I started working as a social worker at a high school in northern Westchester County, New York. As one of my extra duties, I was assigned to be a morning greeter — and I wasn’t happy about it. My energy level in the morning is widely variable: If I sleep well, wake up on time, take a long hot shower, have unwrinkled clothes to put on, and eat a big breakfast with plenty of coffee, then I’m fine. If one or two of those things don’t happen, I’m hungry and sluggish until lunchtime.
Being a morning greeter means I can’t sneak off for coffee or hide in my basement office. I have to go out front and match the energy of the other greeters — the most energetic hype team imaginable. A woman who is 20 years older than me dances and sings; lunch ladies pass out bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches (they learned early on to save me one); principals, security guards, and teachers deliver handshakes and fist bumps while saying things like “Girl, I love the hair!” or “Hey, was that you I saw at the game last night?” I just have this one awkward move where I swing my hands back and forth and then clap.
The girls who have their hair done stop to chat with teachers, but many kids come in disheveled, silent, hoods up, staring toward the tile floor like they wish they could burrow into it. I decided to focus on them. They have always been my specialty anyway (I’ve been working with teens since 2005) and they don’t usually require exuberance. One morning an especially disconnected kid — we’ll call him Mateo — walked towards me and said, “Can we make chocolate chip cookies?” surprising the other greeters. A teacher approached me and told me that it was the most she’d seen anyone engage with him in a couple of years. She said, “Whatever you are doing is working.” She knew I was seeing Mateo for mental health counseling twice a month and she probably thought I was using some cutting-edge therapy techniques, but the sessions were not going well at all. He only engaged with me after I brought up the idea of starting a cooking club during a session the day before.
In that session, Mateo was sitting hunched over with a long wisp of black hair covering his face, meeting every question with silence or a shrug, and, offhand, I said that I might like to start a cooking club. He sat up, brushed his hair aside, and looked at me. I waited in suspense like I was about to hear the first words from a coma patient. He said in his deep monotone, “When does that start?” I was on the hook, but so was he.
In the following weeks, he visited me daily to ask when our first meeting would be so I had to pull something together. Dr. Daniels, an administrator (the woman who sings and dances during the morning greeting), agreed to give me money for groceries if I’d mentor the boys in the group through the My Brother’s Keeper Program (MBK), a national initiative to close opportunity gaps for Black and brown boys. I quickly rounded up eleven more during lunch time: a long-haired senior who would stroll in at noon to eat with his sunglasses on, giving the security guard his signature salute, “Que lo Que?” (meaning “what’s up,” but also “leave me alone,”) a large table of friends and cousins from Ecuador and Guatemala, and two shy African-American best friends who always sat at a table in the back corner of the cafeteria playing video games on their laptops.
On our first Tuesday evening meeting, all 12 boys showed up to the cooking classroom. I gathered them around a prep table. “We’re going to get together every other Tuesday, listen to music, and cook, I said.”Whatever you want to make. Just wash your hands before we start and don’t leave me to do the dishes.” We made chocolate chip cookies, Mateo’s pick. As he mixed batter I caught him smiling. Another boy played bachata music from his phone and I showed him the old kitchen trick of putting the phone in a metal mixing bowl for amplification. Some of the boys danced the bachata three-step together holding hands and laughing after putting the cookies in the oven. I couldn’t believe it. Even Mateo engaged in some of the play fighting and teasing. All 12 of them had quickly turned to putty, as one does in a loud, joyous kitchen.
The group continued to meet every other Tuesday for the rest of the year. We made steak frites with herb butter, tacos de carne asada, gambas al ajillo, buffalo wings, rice and beans with tostones, arepas, gyoza, and more. I let them pick the meals most of the time, though I had to turn down some requests because of time constraints — there was a lot of interest in Gordon Ramsay’s Beef Wellington (and in Gordon Ramsay in general).
Anytime somebody was late for a session, the kids asked around and sent texts until the missing kid was accounted for. They told me they came because “It’s welcoming and fun,” because it was “relaxing,” because they liked bringing the food home to their families and because they liked preparing the dishes they’d learned at home.
Every month, as their mentor, I had to check on their grades — and it was clear that the club wasn’t having much impact on academics. One kid had straight A’s, but many, (including Mateo) were failing, and Mr. “Que lo Que?'' wasn’t going to class. I considered making participation contingent on attendance and grades, but by that point in the year, I had already visited too many homes to talk to kids through their bedroom doors. I didn’t want to add pressure and risk chasing someone into a hole. In some cases, I was the only school staff member they were still regularly engaging with. At our school, and nationwide, mental health was the priority.
According to the CDC, in 2019, more than one in three high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and one in six reported making a suicide plan that year, an over 40 percent increase from 2009 on both counts. These problems have been steadily rising for a decade, and the pandemic exacerbated them, particularly among kids of color (both Black and Hispanic kids were at least twice as likely as white kids to have lost a primary caregiver, according to an NPR report). This past spring the New York Times interviewed over 150 kids —with almost no exceptions, they reported, “It’s the worst it’s ever been.”
There are no buses in my school district. That so many students dragged themselves to school at 6 a.m. every day over steep hills carrying burdens as heavy as their backpacks, amazes me. I won’t share the details of any individual cases, but they were grieving over loved ones lost to COVID, over friends lost to violence, and over family they were separated from during the immigration process; there are new arrivals every day from Ecuador and Guatemala. They were stressed, from the acculturation process, or because their parents wouldn’t accept their queer identities; and exhausted, from having to work to help pay the rent. And then, there was the usual brutality of teenage social life.
I’m not saying that cooking is the solution to the nation’s adolescent mental health epidemic, but a low stakes fun environment where kids can stay connected to an adult is life-saving. Authors of a CDC report from this year found that “Youth who felt connected to adults and peers at school were much less likely than those who did not to report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” (35 percent vs. 53 percent); seriously consider suicide (14 percent vs. 26 percent); or attempt suicide (6 percent vs. 12 percent). “However, fewer than half (47 percent) of youth reported feeling close to people at school during the pandemic.” according to the report.
Throughout the year, all 12 of the kids came to almost every session. No one fell off the radar. Teachers, assistant principals, and psychologists who hadn’t seen one of them for a while could ask me to check in with them. The club was a success.
At the end of the year, Dr. Daniels gave me $600 to take them on a field trip and celebrate. I saw it as an opportunity to expose the kids to fine dining at the highest level, to have a fun memorable experience, and to show them that you don’t need to look like or act like their beloved Ramsay to lead those kitchens. I reached out to Cosme, Enrique Olvera’s New York restaurant which was the highest ranked American restaurant on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list at the time — a fact that would help me demonstrate its stature to the kids and Dr. Daniels. Chef de Cuisine, Gustavo Garnica agreed to host us immediately. A week later I gathered white shirts and black pants from the theater department for the kids who showed up wearing sweatpants. Everyone got dressed, and the cooking club, along with Dr. Daniels boarded a yellow school bus for the city.
That night the boys dined on endless guacamole and tostadas made from house-nixtamalized masa along with a selection of bottomless aguas frescas: amaranth horchata, avocado, jasmine and yuzu, and passion fruit and pineapple canela. They had tataki (mahi mahi) al pastor, burrata with epazote and pine nuts, soft shell crab with chile morita and avocado all before being introduced to chef Garnica. Until that point, the dim lighting, the sexy patrons, and the swanky environment made the boys nervous and quiet, especially when they heard that Bad Bunny and the Obamas were regulars. All but one of them kept their eyes trained on the food. He was busy convincing the bartender to let him shake the cocktail shaker—(Dr. Daniels whispered “Oh my God,” and gave me a frightening look when he obliged) but when they followed Garnica through the swinging kitchen door and were met with bright lights, loud bachata music (just like in our kitchen) and a huge synchronous “Hola!” from the entire kitchen staff they felt at home.
Chef Garnica led them through each station, introducing each cook and their homeland—Honduras, Guatemala, Massachusetts. We saw the ducks hang-drying in a walk-in to produce the crispy skin for their famous duck carnitas, the chiles being processed for the sauces, the corn being nixtamalized by a team of Mexican women in a way that one of the boys recognized from his own home, and the corn-husk meringue being whipped. Garnica told the boys, “This is one of the most famous desserts in the world,” adding, “You’ll try it later tonight.” Before we headed back to the dining room, I pulled him aside to thank him and he said, “Whatever you need: If you want to send one or two to work for a day or two, we can do that too.”
Back at the table, the group became less timid. The duck carnitas came out and their moans and exclamations reached the point of being disruptive — but the server never stopped smiling and joking with them. When the giant pillows of corn husk meringue were placed in the middle of the table, the boys turned ravenous, standing up, scooping it onto their plates and into their mouths until it disappeared. Someone shouted, “It’s so good!”
When we got back on the bus that night and headed home, I think we all realized that club could be about more than engagement, it could create real opportunity and inspiration, but one kid was missing. None of us had been able to convince Mateo to come.
I brought up the trip to him privately the week before and told him what a huge deal it was to go to this restaurant. He refused to come. I pushed and pried, and he said, “It’s just a restaurant. Anyway, I have to work.” I muttered a “coño” that I thought he didn’t hear, but he smirked. Still, he didn’t budge. I called his mom and we spoke to his boss so he could have the day off, but that wasn’t really the problem. I had made the trip sound too grandiose and it was too much pressure for him. He came to the club because it was low-key and low stakes. I should have known that. For the last two weeks of school, I didn’t see or hear from him.
The school year ended in late June, and I still hadn’t heard from Mateo. I imagined myself the next year, standing at his bedroom door trying to convince him to come to school using one of my lines, “You have to jump in like you’re jumping into cold water. You’ll warm up.” A few weeks later, he sent me a one-line email that read, “I forgot to sign up for summer school.” I called around, got him set up, and emailed him back, “No worries. You’re in.”
He knew that I’m not the person who handles things like that (and I was on summer vacation), but he was comfortable enough with me to reach out and ask for help. Summer is over now and he’s moving on to eleventh grade. I’m confident that I’ll see him walking through the doors of the building on September 1, where I’ll likely still be dutifully greeting students. He might ignore me, but he’ll at least show up. I hope he’ll ask when cooking club starts.