Damian Samuell wears his white chef’s hat and navy blue apron as he begins to prepare lunch with the chef instructor and his pals at Miami Culinary Institute.
The recipe of the day: banh mi ha – a Vietnamese chicken sandwich made with garlic, fish sauce, molasses, fresh lemon juice, sesame oil, red pepper flakes, whole-wheat baguettes and Sriracha sauce – with some Asian slaw and bubble tea on the side.
Damian, 8, is in a free three-week summer camp program that Common Threads, a nonprofit imbued with the idea that children can benefit greatly by learning how to cook, launched this year. About 100 children – ages 8 to 12 – are rotating from cooking class to movement class to food science, utilizing the Miami Culinary Institute at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson campus. Whole Foods provided the groceries.
The children are learning how to organize a balanced food plate – half of the plate for fruits and vegetables, a fourth for whole grains and another fourth for lean proteins – and cook recipes from the different countries they “visit:” Sweden, Spain, Ireland, Germany, Morocco, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia and Australia.
Damian’s dad used to work at a restaurant and has always encouraged him to cook. He helps his parents and grandmother in the kitchen, and teaches them what he has learned in English and Spanish.
“This camp is really cool and it’s really fun,” he said. “We make everything I like: pancakes, chicken, salads, smoothies.”
The mission of Common Threads is to teach one million kids how to cook. The organization, which was originally founded in Chicago, has an after-school care program that will run this fall in elementary schools in Overtown, Liberty City, Hialeah, Allapattah, North Miami, Brownsville and Carol City. Most of the campers receive free or reduced lunch during the school year.
Jeannie Necessary, the Miami program manager, says the goal is to teach children about the importance of nutrition and physical activity while giving them the cooking skills needed to live healthy lifestyles in – and out – of the kitchen.
“We want our students to get excited about eating well and transfer the knowledge and skills gained while at camp to their homes,” she said.
The campers read the recipes and measure the ingredients themselves, with supervision from chef instructors and camp counselors. They also practice slicing, dicing and using the bear claw technique of holding a knife when cutting, that is, with fingers tucked in.
Debi LaBelle, a chef instructor, says words such as “gross” or “yuck” are not allowed in the kitchen. There is an “at least one bite rule” so children get used to trying new dishes.
“I love watching them grow and trying new things they would have never tried before,” she said. “If they have tried it before and didn’t like it we tell them to try it again because they’ve never had a recipe like the one they’re making and it could change their opinion.”
According to the National Institute for Children’s Healthcare Quality, 33.1 percent of children in Florida are considered overweight or obese. Necessary, the Miami program manager, believes that Common Threads gives students the confidence to make positive choices about what they eat. Common Threads offers student and family full-year programs.
The student programs include an after-school cooking class and in-school lessons. The Small Bites lesson incorporates math and language arts to nutrition and cooking. The Garden Class lesson incorporates planting and harvesting from the school’s garden.
Family programs include parents’ nights and family cooking classes. Parents’ nights teach parents ways to incorporate nutritious eating habits at home. The family cooking classes are taught by a Common Threads chef instructor and encourage families to cook healthy meals. They learn about healthy ingredient substitutions, cost-saving cooking methods and recipes.
There are 16 schools currently in the program.
Arielle Germeus says that Common Threads has helped her change her eating habits. The 10-year-old used to eat a lot of junk food, but now she eats – and cooks – healthier foods, at camp and at home. “I’ve been learning a lot and having fun at the same time,” she said.
Her favorite recipe has been the Wiener Schnitzel tenders, the German version of chicken tenders made with whole-wheat flour and breadcrumbs, salt and pepper, eggs, milk or water and olive oil. “Think of chicken tenders, but way healthier than Burger King,” Germeus said.
The students also meet with local chefs.
Adrianne Calvo, owner of Chef Adrianne’s restaurant in Kendall, was impressed with how driven the campers were to learn about cooking. The program “hits close to home” for her because she taught cooking classes at an after-school care program in Miami when she was 16.
“A lot can happen when kids have free time and these programs help build self-esteem and skills that they will need later in life,” she said. “I would love for people to support programs like Common Threads. When I became a chef, I fell in love with the program.”
Shakira Jean-Jules, a 10-year-old camper, has had a blast. Her favorite part: She cooks –and eats – good food, exercises and makes friends.
“I am learning things I never knew,” she said. “I now know how to keep my body strong.”