After weeks of preparation, South Bronx students finally got a chance to showcase their culinary skills on May 8 in Mott Haven. As the young chefs warmed their pots and sharpened their knives, the Betances Community Center became center stage for the evening cook-off. Families, friends and three judges watched the two teams measure their sauces, wash their produce and review their recipes.
“I would like to see people have more healthy options in eating,” said 12-year-old Jose Romero. “I changed my diet after coming to this Shop Healthy program. I used to eat a lot of junk food and I cut down on them. Today we prepared our Tex-Mex Chili, which has a lot of vegetables, and we substituted ground beef for ground turkey for health reasons, and we hope we win.”
The after-school initiative stems from a partnership between Healthy & Livable Mott Haven and BronxWorks, through which the young people learn recipes from around the world, while also learning about the cultural context behind those dishes. They also learn to select fresh food and proper cooking temperatures, and about the importance of healthy diet and the consequences of eating poorly.
As adult obesity rates have surged in the South Bronx, the teen chefs have not only changed their own eating habits, they have encouraged their families and friends to do the same, in an area in which one in five residents has been diagnosed with diabetes.
As the two teams prepared for the chef-off, Jose said that his favorite part of cooking has been challenging himself to get creative while changing to healthier recipes.
According to Nutrition Studies, learning to cook helps young people develop other skills, such as math, public speaking, budgeting, and patience, while becoming ambassadors for healthier lifestyles in their neighborhoods.
Kim Wong, program drector for The Community Health Program, says young people who are exposed to healthier food choices are likelier to become engaged in important issues in their neighborhoods than those who eat poorly.
“Our program is a way to combat the health disparities that exist in Mott Haven, where there are high numbers of high cholesterol and diabetes, while working with the youth as activators of change,” said Wong.
The judges at Betances included Councilwoman Diana Ayala, BronxWorks executive director Eileen Torres, and Department of Youth & Community Development representative Daralyn Calderon. All were tasked with selecting the best dish of the evening and a winning team. One of the dishes they sampled was a low sodium chicken and broccoli dish with peanut rice and coconut rice; an intricate concoction from Thailand.
“When I read about this dish, I thought it was a challenge, but I was up for it!” said Kiara Brooks.
The chefs explained their reasons for choosing the dishes to the judges. As they prepared their final presentations, they showcased their creativity, fussing over details and decorating their plates with small cilantro leaves and a ravishing green slice of avocado.
“I never in my life have had chili that tasted this good! I don’t really like chili, but I loved it!” said Ayala.
Encouraged by the success of the initiative, BronxWorks is preparing additional programs, such as Chefs for Change, where participants will prepare nutritious meals with ingredients from their local bodegas.
The judges had a tough job, but in the end applauded both teams for their contributions to making their communities healthier places to live.
“For recipes, we want to declare both teams as winners, for the fact that you worked hard and the complexities of the dishes were phenomenal,” announced Calderon.