By Jon Cullick
Becky Bess had an idea. Four years ago, the administrators at Bellevue High School invited the school staff to propose new student clubs. Staff members were asked whether they had special interests they would want to share with the students. As the Food Services Manager at the school, Becky loves cooking and loves to share her interest with young people. She proposed a cooking club.
Becky’s idea was a hit. Students were given the opportunity to choose from thirty possible clubs. Becky’s cooking club ended up with enough student names to fill several sheets.
“Kids love to cook,” Becky observes. She sums up her philosophy in a straightforward manner: “Let the kids cook.” That’s exactly what she does when the Bellevue Cooking Club meets every other week in the high school cafeteria. Many students have been participating. Most recently, the club has had about five boys and ten to fifteen girls. But the club has had as many as forty-five students in the kitchen at one time.
Becky proudly describes the students at BHS as “open and willing to learn.” Bellevue students, in Becky’s words, are “thriving,” “awesome, “ “friendly,” and “welcoming to new students and new ideas.” Some of them return to visit her after they graduate. And some 7th graders are already attending the club.
Each club meeting is structured with Becky teaching the students a specific cooking skill or style. Once those fundamentals are learned, the students are ready to move on to learning how to cook entrees, vegetable side dishes, and of course, everyone’s favorite, dessert. Each month has a different theme.
For the 2014-15 school year, the initial lesson included the basics of kitchen safety. That lesson covered use of the equipment and special instruction in knife safety. Becky also emphasized proper food storage and how to keep a kitchen sanitary to prevent foodborne illnesses.
The October theme was German cuisine featuring snappy cocktail meatballs, Reuben roll-ups, German Chicken, and Cinnamon Coffee Cake. Thanksgiving was the November theme. Club members learned how to prepare turkey casserole, turkey noodle soup, sweet potato pudding, and “turkeys” made of Oreo cookies. The December theme was Christmas. The menu included reindeer cookies, chocolate cookies, and strawberry upside down cake.
As the new year began in January 2015, the theme was Italian cooking. The students made prosciutto, chicken Parmesan, and tiramisu. Chinese cooking was the theme for February with baked cream cheese rangoons, baked Asian style honey chicken, and Asian egg tarts.
The March theme is Irish food, featuring soda bread and apple cake. The April theme will be Mexican. The students will make mini-tacos, cheese enchiladas, and apple enchiladas. The final theme of the year in May will be Caribbean.
Who eats all these irresistible offerings? The club has a rule: the kids must be willing to try every dish they cook. Becky is teaching the students that a good cook must know how his or her menu items taste. She is also encouraging them to expand their own personal food options, which helps a teenager have a nutritious diet.
Parents and members of the community are also invited to try the foods. On the final Wednesday of every month, the Cooking Club hosts a family dinner. Everyone in the community is invited to attend. (RSVP is requested but not required.) The menu consists of the items the students have been learning to make that month.
The songwriting club might sing or other school clubs might give presentations.
All of this food and equipment costs money. Originally, kitchen staff purchased ingredients out of their own pockets. But recent support for the club has come from a federal grant, known as a “21st Century Grant.”
Molly Russell, the Site Coordinator for this grant, explains that BHS secured the grant in partnership with the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati. It is a five-year grant totaling $150,000. It pays for several programs at the school, including field trips, tutoring programs, and the Cooking Club. So far, about two-thirds of all students at BHS and the middle school have participated in programs sponsored by the grant. Molly explains, “I want these kids to be able to experience things they might not otherwise be able to experience . . . . This grant is theirs [the students’].”
Still, community assistance is always needed and welcome. Becky notes that the community has already been supportive. People have stepped forward, willing to help when the school needs it. Parents and community members have contributed cookbooks. The Bellevue Alliance, in Becky’s words, has been “awesome.”
Talking with Becky Bess and Molly Russell, I can see their dedication. They love their jobs. They care about the students. As a teacher myself, I know that it is crucial for a teacher to have knowledge of content and an understanding of how students learn. But I have always believed that there is another crucial quality. One must be driven by a passion to teach and an authentic, caring attitude. Becky and Molly possess these qualities. We are fortunate to have staff members like them in the Bellevue school system.
For more information about the Bellevue Cooking Club, please contact Becky Bess at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check the Bellevue Alliance Facebook page for announcements.
(Do you know someone doing good work in our city? Please contact me at email@example.com.)