Walking the halls of Stuart Wood elementary on Thursdays would send anybody’s taste buds soaring as an eminent chef and his cohort of pint-sized protégés explore the culinary arts.
Once a week through January and February the delicious odours would emanate from the teacher lounge kitchen thanks to an after-school cooking club launched in collaboration with the City of Kamloops, the Kamloops-Thompson School District and Interior Health.
Since 2010, children have been introduced to recreation that might otherwise pass them by thanks to See it! Try it! Do it!
The program gives kids a chance to try such activities as yoga, martial arts, drumming, even pickle ball.
Students can sign up and try it out for a week for free and then have the choice to stay on for another four weeks for only $10.
Chef Jimmy McDermott, who leads the club, has served as chef to Mike Wiegele heli-skiers for 15 years.
Finding McDermott was a coup, said Ben Chobater, City of Kamloops community development co-ordinator.
“It was a real, absolute, huge stroke of luck and really fortunate for us,” he said. “We ended up getting this world-class chef at rock-bottom prices.
“And part of the appeal of the programming now is these kids see a fellow who is expert at what he does so watching him cut things . . . these kids just get riveted and realize that cooking can be something pretty cool, not just a chore.”
More than half the 14 students participating are boys, a fact that principal Sydney Griffith greets with enthusiasm.
“It makes sense because as a profession it’s traditionally been male but we lost that somewhere along the line,” she said. “And I think this approach is great because at the elementary level, there’s not a lot of male staff.
“So having another man come in, in a professional role — fabulous. And it just opens their eyes, like ‘Oh!’ And well, TRU has a fantastic program.”
The parents are also thrilled by the “wonderful role modelling,” she said.
McDermott’s five-week course focuses on the very basics with an emphasis, always, on fresh food.
“I’m most satisfied when the kids are excited about food and not opening up a can and that’s dinner,” he said.
Students have various levels of food knowledge and experience. Some surprised McDermott with their skill.
“I thought we’d do a bit more cooking than prepping,” said 10-year-old Logan Mooney, who is clearly among the more knowledgeable students. “But I like learning to make stuff I can do at home.”
Consensus among the students had the “healthy pizza” as the favourite recipe of the program.
The pita-based recipe includes cheese, turkey, tomato sauce and plenty of vegetables — it was the first taste of spinach for some. It can take 15 minutes to make.
For 11-year-old Timmy Bernier-McWilliams, who has had experience making meals such as Kraft Dinner, the new skills gave him confidence at home.
“I ask if I can help out at home now,” he said.
McDermott’s course included a tour of Cooper’s grocery store, where he led the kids through the aisles describing proteins, fats, dairies, sugar and produce.
“I’m surprised by how much they actually know about food,” he said. “There are definitely some children you can tell from their upbringing have been around a lot more nutritional food as compared to a lot of other kids who don’t even know what a red pepper is.”
He also teaches them about a child’s most irresistible temptation: sugar — especially in beverages.
“For each class I do a fruit water combining regular fruits sliced and put into water just to give it a little bit of a flavour because most kids are just craving some kind of flavour in their drinks,” he said.
It’s difficult to tell the kids that too much sugar leads to diabetes, heart disease and a whole host of other ailments, he said. But giving them an alternative to juice is a good start.
“And I really like to spell it out to them that I’m not going to tell them, ‘You can’t do this’ because you tell a kid you can’t do something he’s going to do it anyways. But everything in moderation, right?”
Ten-year-old Kylie Murphy liked it so much, she joined two years in a row. She had never tasted spinach before taking the course, but after her second time, she was beginning to show sophisticated skills and knowledge.
“Cooking is a lot of fun when there are a lot of ingredients,” she said.
That kind of growth is exactly the point of the See it! Try it! Do it! program, said Chobater.
In 2009, the school district and the City formed a partnership to develop the after-school programming in a unique affiliation created to provide children with the opportunity to participate in activities at their school that help them build self-confidence, have fun, meet new friends and form healthy habits.
“This is just that initial step catching these kids when they’re young with the most opportunities,” said Chobater.
“Everyone should have access to some form of recreation and this effort here exposes them to something.
There will be more opportunities within secondary schools and they’ll have some experience that hopefully goes somewhere bigger.”
The program breaks even, he said, thanks to the generosity of 15 or 16 local professionals who nearly all lend their expertise for free.
A few years ago, the school district and city partnership expanded to include Interior Health in an attempt to introduce healthier eating habits among children.
The result was a 40-page nutritional guide that includes numerous easy and healthy recipes.
The kids involved in the after-school cooking club receive a smaller version of the guide with five recipes inside.
Nine-year-old Stuart Wood student Kenji Huang wasn’t all that keen on taking the class but his mother was.
“She said I’m getting older and I need to learn,” he said.
To his surprise, he loved it.
“It’s fun, and we get to taste it after.”
McDermott now moves onto A.E. Perry elementary for another five-week course and wraps up the year at Kay Bingham elementary.