Week 5: 'I like that we make food I've never tasted before'

William Torres stirs the chili as classmate Ezequiel Valdez keeps an eye on things. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer

The cooking class at Lewis Elkin Elementary School had been long anticipated. It was supposed to start last fall, but the teacher in charge, Jeanne DeVine, broke her foot and was out of commission.

"There are very few after-school opportunities for these kids," said DeVine, who teaches English as a second language at Elkin. "And the boys kept asking, 'Are we still going to do the cooking?' "

Once her foot was healed, she was ready to start this spring. But there was another hitch: the lack of a stove. A colleague's connection for a donated stove had fallen through and DeVine could not bear to delay again. So she brought in a toaster oven for the first class. And then she found someone to donate a new electric stove. It was hooked up - not a moment too soon - on the morning of the second class.

"They were so counting on it," she said. "How could we let them down?"

DeVine had decided to start with an all-boys class and follow it with an all-girls class next fall.

"If we started with girls, I was afraid the boys might think it was something only girls do. And if we had girls in the class, I feared the boys might be intimidated if the girls knew their way around the kitchen."

She asked the fourth-grade teachers to nominate boys, specifically asking for ones who "don't always get the prizes."

It turned out some of the boys were her former students.

"The results have been fabulous," she said. "They don't want it to stop."

As though on cue, one of the boys, Devin Santana, 10, piped up: "I wish we could have cooking class every day."

The class at Lewis Elkin is one of 31 around the region taught after school as part of the Inquirer's My Daughter's Kitchen healthy-cooking program. For this, the fourth week, the menu was vegetarian chili and guacamole.

Taught by DeVine and Bonni Dias, a second-grade teacher at Elkin, the class was impressive. After reading through the recipe, the class identified all the jobs - chopper, washer, peeler, adder, sautéer, measurer, masher, server - and wrote them down with a boy's name next to each.

The boys were outfitted in tall chef's toques with snappy blue-and-white checked bands. Ezequiel Valdez, 10, had suggested they needed chef's hats after the first class. Dias found them online, and the boys have proudly donned them each week since.

They did look like young chefs, busy washing, peeling, and chopping the vegetables, measuring the spices, opening the cans of tomatoes and beans, chopping the cilantro, mashing the avocado. Kevin Melendez, 10, probably the group's most enthusiastic chopper, demonstrated impressive skill.

"I swear we'll be watching you on Food Network one day," said Dias. "Look at the dice of those tomatoes. It's professional!"

Once the onion was chopped, Christopher Moran-Vivar, 10, took on the task of sautéing while Kevin, the "adder," was ready to add the spices and other veggies when the onions were soft and translucent.

None of the boys had ever had vegetarian chili before. Devin and William Torres, 10, the group's "No. 1 eater," had eaten chili with meat, but the other three had never tasted chili of any kind. But it certainly did not dampen their enthusiasm.

"I like that we make food I've never tasted before," said Devin. "It makes me try new things."

DeVine explained the healthy contents of the meal they were making: In addition to the rainbow of vegetables in the chili, the beans are a great source of protein and inexpensive. Avocados are full of vitamins and minerals, she said. "You don't always have to eat meat at every meal," she said. "A meal like this is just as good for you."

After the rest of the vegetables and spices were added to the pan, they had to cook through before adding the beans.

"We want them to be soft, not crunchy, right?" Ezequiel said.

The boys set the table, and once the vegetables were cooked, the beans and tomatoes were added and, finally, the chopped cilantro. Ezequiel served everyone a bowl of chili, then the guacamole was passed around so everyone could add a dollop.

Then there was a few minutes of silence as the boys dug into the chili.

"It's good," said William. "The vegetables are soft," Ezequiel noticed. "It's tasty."

"I like the guacamole and the beans," said Christopher.

The class has been a gift, the teachers said, not only to the students, but to them.

"This is the best part of my day," said Dias. "I love seeing them enjoy it."

DeVine agreed: "We get to see them in a very different light . . . and it has allowed them to be their own little group. . . . They write in their journals that they like cooking with their friends, but they were not friends before they started this class. Now they are."