An ambitious cooking program in the North End is turning inner-city kids into chefs capable of creating elaborate dishes — including everything from Canadian-fusion fish tacos to hand-rolled sushi.

The program happens every Tuesday at Ralph Brown Community Centre in the heart of the North End, teaching young kids everything from the basics of cooking to how to make a meal worthy of your Instagram account.

Cooking skills needed

Late last year, a University of Manitoba professor raised alarm bells about the declining enrolment in home economics classes, saying food preparation knowledge among kids was down, and that could lead to obesity and other health problems.

Read the full story here: Home economics classes losing steam in Manitoba

“Kids these days are cooking with a debit card and a microwave, and we want to change that,” said Kreesta Doucette, the executive director of Food Matters Manitoba, the group who organizes the classes.

Food Matters launched the ambitious cooking program in 2013, after a food assessment in the North End found families wanted more access to healthy, traditional foods and the skills to cook them.

“People assume that kids are learning these food skills from their parents across all income levels across all areas of the city,” said Doucette. “[But] in the North End, often folks don’t have as much access as people do in other areas to grocery stores, so sometimes even accessing fresher foods can be really tricky.”

That’s where the Our Food, Our Health, Our Culture cooking classes come in.

Darrin Mala

Darrin Mala, age 10, is in Grade 5 at Ralph Brown School. He comes to the program every week. Before it started, he said he can now make everything from spaghetti to sushi. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC)

Kids aged eight to 13 can stop by one of three community centres to get a good meal and the skills to learn how to make it.

“If there weren’t programming going on the kids would be hanging out, looking for things to do. You don’t know quite what they’d be up to,” said Anna Levin, the program's instructor. “Many kids have come back multiple times to the classes, and you can see how they’re kind of growing as cooks … You can just observe them taking in so much information and learning and getting better.”

Sydney Stanbra-Courtland​ is a Grade 5 student at Ralph Brown School. She has returned to the classes almost every week.  

“I didn’t know about [cooking] before, but now I feel more comfortable,” said 10-year-old Stanbra-Courtland. “[Levin] understands us, and she takes time with us.”

Ambition in the kitchen

Levin said the complicated recipes and cooking techniques go hand in hand with cooking with more traditional foods.

“Often times those recipes can be more ambitious,” she said. “

[And] the more work there is for them to do in the kitchen, the better time they have.”

While the kids are game to make just about anything — even asking for lessons on how to make sushi — they’re not quite as excited about tasting it all the time.

“We told them ahead of time the nori paper was made of seaweed. None of them were really crazy about it. ‘Aw, it’s seaweed! It’s really gross!’” she said.

But, in a group that was oblivious to what the nori paper was made of, the sushi got rave reviews.

“It’s just funny the things you can throw into a dish, and if they don’t know what it is, they might try it anyways,” said Levin.

Program has wait list

The program has become so popular there are double the kids waiting to get in at each centre as there are spots.

Now, Food Matters is trying to expand the classes.

With so many kids interested in the program, and the need for more cooking instruction for young people, the organization is hoping to add extra classes at a number of other centres. That means training staff and equipping kitchens. 

Sushi

The week before making Canadian-fusion fish tacos, the kids made this sushi with traditional ingredients like wild rice, smoked salmon and pickerel. (Food Matters)

In the meantime, Doucette and Levin have big plans for the Ralph Brown class. This week, they’ll be working to create the best original sandwich with kids from other community centres.

If they do, they’ll get $500 to help fund the cooking program at their centre.

Levin did a test run at another centre last week.

“The kids came up with the craziest, most creative combinations. I didn’t expect that,” said Levin.

The program is offered at the Aberdeen Boys and Girls Club on Monday nights, Ralph Brown on Tuesday nights and Turtle Island Neighbourhood Centre on Thursday nights. 


Watch CBC News Winnipeg at 5, 5:30 and 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 28, to see these kids in action.