Nov. 12, 2005.
Sixteen-year-old Sean flashes a big smile as he perspires over a pan of onions destined for an Indian dish called butter chicken. “I didn’t know you could sweat onions,” he says. “People, yeah, but onions?”
The Toronto teen finds some cooking instructions very funny. But the charge that brought him here — possession of a concealed weapon — is not.
Sean is cooking in a new program that gives young offenders vocational training as part of the community-service requirement of their sentences. At the end of a six-week cooking course, Sean and his classmates will prepare a meal and serve it to senior citizens.
“Everyone eats, so you can use it to teach some stuff,” says Marjorie Agnew, owner of The Main Course, a kitchenware store on Avenue Rd. She donated $10,000 to start this cooking class, which takes place once a week upstairs at Loblaws in the North York Centre.
Instructor Maria Marotta remembers how the teens’ eyes glazed over in the first class when she discussed food safety. But now that they help plan menus and cook, they’re having more fun, she says.
To show accountability to society, some teens do community service through a non-profit group called Participation, Acknowledgment, Commitment and Transformation (PACT). Others are here on the recommendation of their probation officers. All are required to cook their way out of trouble.
The youths have been charged, but haven’t gone to court yet. As part of their accountability to society, they perform community service and come to cooking class. Sometimes — depending on a crown attorney’s decision — they can avoid jail if they complete the assigned number of community hours.
Tonight, the teens have a choice: they can make Thai salad rolls with dipping sauce; salad with mandarin oranges and toasted almonds; cheddar and herb scones; butter chicken with basmati rice; or Marotta’s personal brownie recipe.
While some participants like Sean arrive alone, others are accompanied by family. (Sean is not his real name. Names of all youth have been changed to protect their identities.)
Fifteen-year-old Alana, visibly pregnant, makes brownies with her mom. Neither will discuss her charges, but Alana’s mother says: “If I don’t support her now, who will? Her friends? That’s what brought her here in the first place. I don’t want her to end up here again.”
Jennifer, 18, arrives with the biggest entourage — two sisters and two friends.
She was charged after shopping with someone else’s credit card and was ordered to do 25 hours of community service. When Jennifer’s probation officer told her about the cooking school option, she immediately said yes. She knew cooking wouldn’t be hard because she helps at home.
Although her mother and sisters know about her charge, her father doesn’t. “If he found out, he’d kill me,” she says as she roasts almonds, peels oranges and steams rice.
After carefully lifting a rice-paper wrap from a bowl of warm water, 16-year-old Bree sniffs the tip of her fingers and declares it disgusting.
At another table, neither Michelle, 19, nor her friend Kyle want to get their hands dirty while mixing dry and wet ingredients for scones. Michelle pleads a case of long fingernails, so Kyle agrees to mix the dough if Michelle tops the unbaked scones with grated cheddar. Marotta encourages them to continue playing with their food.
The cooking school launched in February and has already seen three batches of graduates. This group finished on Monday. PACT co-ordinator Terance Brouse hopes 80 teens will have cooking skills by the end of its first year. Still, Brouse says there are many more kids out there who need to complete community service.
Though funding isn’t a problem thanks to patrons like Agnew, who would like to fund cooking schools like this across the city, Brouse fears not enough probation officers know about the classes. (Go to www.pactprogram.ca and click on community work programs.)
“Funding is contingent to the number of students that attend the school,” he points out.
“Right now, we’re running only one program in one location but we need more referrals. That depends on the courts.”
While Agnew hopes some of the graduates pursue a love of cooking later in life, she wants all of them to learn the importance of health and nutrition.
After a Greek-themed class two weeks ago, 17-year-old Joe tried to recreate Greek salad at home — but it failed.
“I knew I was missing a key ingredient,” he says, referring to the feta cheese.
The soft-spoken youth, who was charged with breaking and entering, says he wants to learn to cook Chinese food for his girlfriend.
And Sean, who only ventured into the kitchen at home to put dirty dishes in the sink, recently made banana bread from a recipe he found on a cereal box and recreated Marotta’s brownies for a Sunday dinner.
“After my mother, one of my sisters was next in line as the best chef, but now I am challenging it,” says Sean, who’s now thinking about a career in the food industry.
Still, you won’t catch this macho teen bragging about his culinary prowess to his friends. “It will hurt my masculinity,” he says