The Portland Kitchen Cooks Up Success

A free after-school program provides underprivileged students the chance to gain vocational skills and healthy eating habits.

By Nicole Cordier May 15, 2014

The walls of the Portland Kitchen's classroom—currently operating out of the basement at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church on NE Prescott—are covered in hand-drawn posters of cooking tips, like the proper temperature to cook different types of meat. The drawings, with their shaky lines penned by young hands, bring some color to the student's workspace, a semi-circle of rolling metal tables each containing a burner and mixing bowl.

This is the Portland Kitchen, a nonprofit that provides free after-school and summer culinary education to underprivileged youth ages 14-18. Since opening last September, students learn basic kitchen and knife safety, lessons about responsibility and commitment, and more specific recipes like soufflé or pasta dishes. They also get the opportunity to engage with the community, as the program hosts several volunteer events each term.

On a recent visit, I observed the class in action. The student's enthusiasm was palpable as their hands shot toward the ceiling each time the teacher needed a volunteer for a cooking demonstration.

"No one is going to care if you're weird here because we all have a common commodity," says student Brian Mapes, "We all love to cook. When you combine those things we can grow bonds and become friends."

"I saw a need for an after-school training program that could build the skills one would learn in a part time job because that opportunity has been cut in half in the last decade," says program founder and director Abigail Herrera, who began planning this project in 2010.

Currently wrapping up their first school-year program and looking forward to this summer's cohort, the program focuses on providing job skills and healthy eating habits to students who may otherwise miss the opportunity to learn this information. Upon completion of the curriculum, students graduate with a SafeServ certificate, job experience for their resume, a letter of recommendation from program directors, completion of mock interviews with sponsors like New Seasons, and a foundation for healthy eating habits.

Focused on students at Parkrose and Madison High Schools, about 70% of the programs participants are on the free or reduced lunch program at their school. The Portland Kitchen, which admits 20-25 students each term, meets two days a week for their school year cohort and four days a week during the summer sessions.

Herrera believes it's important to allow students an opportunity to explore their interests in a non-threatening environment. Herrera looks for students who show a passion for the culinary arts and a desire to prepare themselves for the job market.

"I had a really terrible time in high school and I barely graduated, " she says, "I think specific path-based courses are important for students because they allow them to vet their interests with out making significant life choices."

"What was really exciting is that it was like a real-life job interview. We had to go and sign our names on paperwork and be interviewed and hopefully we'd get admitted into the program," says Devyn Johnston, a student participant.

As the Portland Kitchen looks toward the future, their efforts land on fundraising and program development. They've recently signed a lease to remain at St. Matthews through the summer and next school year. Currently accepting partners and new volunteers, the program is always in need of kitchen equipment, especially knives and high quality pots and pans.

For those interested in becoming involved or having their child participate in the program, The Portland Kitchen will be holding information sessions May 15th and 20th as well as June 5th and 9th at St. Matthews. Volunteers can also contact Herrera directly to find a way to contribute.

For Arielle Clark, the culinary director of the program, it's seeing the student's enthusiasm for volunteer work and the bonds they've fostered that has been the most powerful moment.

"We won't be saying goodbye to this first group of students," she says, "We hope to keep them a part of things and there are a lot of opportunities for them help out and keep adding to their resume."

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