Loving spoonfuls: A Toronto cooking school teaches youth in conflict with the law how to avoid a lifetime of heat, writes Harold Levy
March 04, 2007
HAROLD LEVY – SPECIAL TO THE STAR
You could say they’re out of the fire and into the frying pan.
That’s the intention of Toronto philanthropist David Lockett and his long-time friend Dan Cornacchia. The pair has developed an innovative approach to help turn around the lives of young people who have run afoul of the law: teach them how to cook.
The Main Course Cooking School arose from Lockett’s personal belief that entrepreneurs should use their talents and energies to creatively tackle social problems, and effect positive change in the lives of others. It is one element of an organization built by Lockett and Cornacchia called PACT – an acronym for Participation, Acknowledgement, Commitment and Transformation – that since 2001 has delivered “hands-on” courses in other areas such as film, rock music and urban reforestation. The program is designed, in co-operation with the courts, to keep youth in conflict with the law out of trouble and learning skills that interest them.
“It feels a thousand times better to make positive social change than to make money,” says Lockett, who throws his unbridled entrepreneurial enthusiasm into a transportation company called Torglobal Logistics. Cornacchia is a partner in the mega-accounting firm Ernst & Young LLP.
The Main Course Cooking School, which has been running in several Loblaws community kitchens since 2005, allows youths who have been charged with minor crimes the ability to participate in the six-week course under community service orders imposed by the youth criminal justice system.
Its primary aim is to teach youth the basic life skills they lack, such as how to food shop on a budget, read a recipe, plan nutritious meals and cook for themselves or for their families.
At the end of each session, the students design, prepare and serve a closing banquet meal to seniors, or another community group, before receiving certificates aimed at helping them obtain jobs in the food industry.
“Half of these kids intimidated each other and had huge chips on their shoulders when they began the course,” says program manager Terance Brouse. “But when you put them in that (kitchen) environment, the change is pretty amazing.
“They start working together in a quiet and focused way, and you can see them using their hands.”
Brouse acknowledges that, when first told about the program, most of the youths say things like “cooking is for girls,” or “I’m not into that.”
“I tell them, `Look, when I learned to cook I used to pick up the best chicks because if you can cook veal marsala, lobster thermidor or any of that stuff, you are going to blow them away … because 90 per cent of the guys will make Hamburger Helper.'”
Brouse says the Main Course Cooking School is successful because food is universal and cross-cultural, and no matter where you come from, “everybody has food.”
“Take an herb like cilantro,” he says. “It’s in Mexican food. It’s in Indian food. It’s in Mediterranean food. There is one simple leaf that unites all these different cultures.”
He notes that in Scarborough and North York, where the program currently operates in three centres, there are dozens of cultures, “all crunched together.
“What’s one way to unite all of them?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s food. Perhaps the most uniting thing that exists … Food and sex are human nature.”
“I like to meet the kids over the six weeks,” says Marjorie Agnew, owner of the popular Avenue Rd. cookware store (which the PACT course is named for) The Main Course. She means what she says, and often rolls up her sleeves to help out in class.
“You see quite a change in them … and not just in their kitchen skills,” she adds.
Agnew, who funds the program and also solicits support from her colleagues in the food industry, believes that the students respond positively because, “food is a bond which brings people together and helps them communicate.”
This past Valentine’s Day, sub-zero temperatures and heavy snow did little to chill the cooking fervour of the night’s dozen students – three girls and nine boys.
At the Loblaws community kitchen at Cedarbrae Mall, in Scarborough, not far from the youth courts and probation offices, teaching chef La-Toya Fagon governs the class like a surrogate mother. In her white gown and black cap, she’s firm but forgiving, entertaining and instructive. Ever watchful, Fagon lets nothing escape her glance.
“Your parents didn’t beat you hard enough,” she quips to a male student with a good-natured grin.
He laughs back.
Fagon sets the tone for the evening with her announcement: “We’re going to do some desserts because it’s Valentine’s Day … I’m here with you guys because you’re all my Valentines.”
She then divides the class into four groups and hands out recipes for basic brownies, oatmeal chocolate cookies, pastries called straw heart pillows and lasagna.
“Can I do the brownies?” asks a big, street-wise young guy.
The students turn their intent focus over to the recipes as one member of the group doles out the necessary ingredients. As things get cooking over the next two hours, back-and-forth banter joins the aromas in the air.
Fagon looks up in dismay when she sees one of her students smelling his creation.
“You have to taste it,” she says, looking quite shattered. “You can smell, smell, smell … but that’s not going to do the trick.”
Another group hovers over a simmering cauldron.
“This need a lot more salt … a little more black pepper … and more oregano,” Fagon pronounces. “No, we’re not doing any more chili powder,” she adds firmly with a glare that would melt butter.
In one of the most compelling images of the evening, a student tenderly picks up a pastry puff, levels off a dollop of icing, and gazes at his creation.
The class ends with kitchen clean-up, students critically sampling their creations and loading doggy bags to take the leftovers home.
Although the class formally ends at 8 p.m., most of the youths linger another half-hour to try the lasagna when Fagon finally rules it is ready to be removed from the oven.
Next week, the students are told, they’ll receive their certificates and also have the opportunity to wow a group of seniors with their newly acquired skills.
And so, as the class ends, the students huddle together and plan a four-course dinner, which will include French onion soup and pork tenderloin with apples and cream.
“Is there a certain way to dress?” one young woman asks.
“It’s not the prom,” replies program manager Brouse.
“See you next week,” he says, handing out TTC tickets to those who need them.
Fagon and her sous-chef Roula Alexopoulos purchase each evening’s ingredients for the four dishes the students are about to creat from, naturally, Loblaws.
“We go down to the store and use as many President’s Choice products as possible,” Fagon says. “Occasionally, we take some of the kids shopping, too.”
Fagon, who has a West Indian background and is a graduate of the culinary arts program at George Brown College, is proud of her “kids.”
Her mother, she says, taught her how to cook before she could walk.
“I’m not helping them at all,” says Fagon, who specializes in Northern Italian cuisine. “They’re doing everything.
“They may not be culinary chefs, mind you, but at least they are making their own pizzas instead of just heating up a frozen pizza. They know what goes in it, and they are making the dough from scratch.
“They may play around a bit, but at least now they know what they are doing.”
A young woman who entered the class to satisfy her high school’s 40-hour community service requirement says it was about time that she learned how to prepare a meal because, “I can’t cook at all and I’m 18.”
“We’re all working together, doing all the cooking, all the cleaning up, each week with a different group … it’s different but it is all connected and has united us,” she says.
A youth worker who has dropped by to visit a couple of kids under her supervision says the program has already helped two of her young charges.
“One of them was a young man who was roaming the streets, very angry at everybody and had no idea that he had a future beyond being 23 years old,” says the youth worker. “The certificate he got enabled him to get a job at a downtown restaurant and now he is looking at going to cooking school at George Brown,” You can’t say enough about that kind of success.
“The young people who are interested absolutely thrive.”