Exploring Food and Culture in Our Emerging Chefs Program

Nine years ago, a group of dedicated professionals, including our founder and president Brent Holsinger, came together to lead two 21st Century grant-funded programs, known as Beyond the Bell. Kristi Van Sickle was a part of that original team, beginning an initiative that she called Emerging Chefs, which focused on providing culinary opportunities and practical cooking skills to local youth.

When the grants ended, that same team came together to continue offering life-changing opportunities to local youth through On the Road, and Kristi’s amazing program became an integral part of our programming.

Over the last five years, Kristi and the Emerging Chefs team has continued to empower our youth through hands-on learning opportunities in the kitchen.

On the Road Youth in an Emerging Chefs cooking class

In this program, youth learn practical skills and cooking techniques, as well as food presentation, serving, and hosting skills. A large emphasis is also placed on farm-to-table initiatives and supporting local farmers and infusing global recipes with local ingredients.

“We have a lot of local farms and agriculture in our area, but sometimes kids don’t always get to be a part of that,” Kirsti said.

While Emerging Chefs offer many practical cooking skills and the ability for youth to try various dishes, Kristi says the mission of the program goes much deeper.
“I think our kids have a lot to share around food culture,” Kristi explained. “Food is a really great way to bring people together and to connect people to each other and learn from each other.”

a teacher helps an On the Road Youth in an Emerging Chefs cooking class

Kristi’s background is in youth development, but she’s always had a love for food and culture, something that was influenced by her Japanese grandmother.

“I think we can learn a lot about each other’s cultures, because food is such a central point of culture for so many of us,” Kristi said, adding that for many of our youth, who have had to move or leave a place behind, offering a space to explore their culture through food invites a sense of belonging and understanding.

“Food can connect us to home and place and culture, and being able to carry [our culture] with us and preserve that, I think is really important,” Kristi explained.

Because of this collaborative and inviting environment that the Emerging Chefs team has worked to create, Krist says the cooking instructors often learn just as much from the youth as the youth learn from them, which helps them to be proud of their culture.

a teacher helps an On the Road Youth in an Emerging Chefs cooking class

“Sometimes our students bring recipes to us, and so we really love when they share their family traditions and their family recipes with us,” Kristi said. I just love the way that it can connect [food and culture] and that we can really learn from each other at the same time.”

Kristi reflected on one of her participating youths who has been with the Emerging Chefs program since she was a 6th grader. Now, as a rising junior, her skills are leading her toward additional cooking opportunities outside of the program. Kirsti said she’s an example of how wonderful it’s been to watch the youth’s passion grow.

“I really love watching their sense of adventure and excitement around trying new things grow, along with the building of their confidence,” Kristi said.

Over the years, the Emerging Chefs team has continued to respond to what their youth most need, exploring new and innovative ways to approach cooking. But this past semester presented new challenges for a program that thrives on gathering around a table.

Yet, Kristi and her team didn’t miss a beat and quickly pivoted to online cooking classes.

muffins shown during a zoom class

“On our team, we talk a lot about access and connection and relationship building, and so as soon as COVID started, we started asking how we could continue this and make it as fully accessible as possible,” Kristi explained. “We started by moving things online and then my team really wanted to also do grocery deliveries to make sure that the kids had the ingredients so they wouldn’t have to stress about trying to find the ingredients or go to the store.”

At the end of the spring semester, the Emerging Chefs team hosted a parade of sorts, driving to each of their youth’s houses to wave hi and drop off a special gift, which included some plants, the ingredients to make cookies, and their own set of measuring spoons.

Many of these same students continued into the Emerging Chefs summer program, which concluded this past week. Throughout the summer, the Emerging Chefs team continued to deliver groceries to each of their youth’s homes each week before holding their virtual meetings where the youth and the instructors could cook together.

While this season has presented many challenges, Kristi said this time has revealed how dedicated her team is in making sure the youth feel supported, especially when thinking about all that is involved with cooking virtually, including purchasing, prepping, and delivering groceries each week.

“It’s really been a team effort to make sure that we can stay connected to our youth and that they feel like they have a space that they can still be together and be themselves and feel connected, even if they’re not leaving their houses or able to see anyone,” Kristi explained, which demonstrates one of our leading values since the beginning.

While we continue to face challenges looking ahead, the commitment we’ve witnessed from our amazing volunteers and team members makes us feel confident that we will be able to continue building a world where all youth are on the road to realizing their promise.

Because in all seasons, that’s a vision worth working toward.

A special thanks to all of our supporters, volunteers, and team members who are helping us make quick changes when necessary. We also want to give a special shoutout to the Friendly City Food Co-op who has been a long-time sponsor and supporter of the On the Road and the Emerging Chefs program. Our team shops at the Friendly City every week for groceries and they make it easy to find local ingredients to include in our recipes.