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'Kitchen Possible' Empowering Pilsen Kids With Cooking, But It Needs Help

By Ariel Cheung | August 11, 2017 5:51am | Updated on August 13, 2017 9:33am
 A Pilsen cooking class for children gives its chefs-in-training access to new foods and the steps it takes to make them.
Kitchen Possible Shows Kids What They're Capable Of
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PILSEN — Katie Lowman is the star of her own cooking show.

Every Monday, she chops, stirs and mixes before a captive audience, eager to hear her tips on the best ingredients in barbecue sauce and explain what a parsnip is.

Like the sous chefs in "Iron Chef America," Lowman's associates will bustle about the room with brightly colored aprons, assisting and offering suggestions to the chefs on their team.

There's just one catch: They haven't even reached their teens.

Lowman, 29, decided to bring a lifelong passion for home cooking to Gads Hill Center in Pilsen, 1919 W. Cullerton St., where she started Kitchen Possible, a new children's cooking class that is running in conjunction with the education and community center's summer camp.

But to keep the class going beyond its first eight-week session, Lowman needs to find a way to finance it.

Over the past month, more than a dozen children, many of whom attend nearby neighborhood schools, have invented their own barbecue sauce recipes and flipped fruit-filled pancakes, all while learning that anything — even cooking like a top chef — is possible.

Lowman spends the first quarter of the free, hour-long class demonstrating the recipe of the week. The kids split up into teams of three students plus one adult volunteer who can guide them through the steps.

Katie Lowman, 29, instructs students on how to make barbecue sauce, with a large mirror above her giving them a bird's eye view. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

All the while, they're supposed to keep in mind that the same process involved with cooking — making a decision, preparing, following your plan, editing and refining — can apply to improving their own lives, as well.

At the end of one class, as students snack on their freshly made pulled chicken barbecue sandwiches with roasted veggies, nine-year-old Ashley Saucedo shares a new dream of hers: To become a veterinarian.

Together with Lowman, the class talks through the steps it will take for Ashley to make it happen — although as she's starting fifth grade at Orozco Elementary next month, she's got plenty of time to plan.

Adult volunteers help teams of three with the Kitchen Possible recipe of the week after a demonstration. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

Lowman has taken a few years to make her own dream a reality; the idea to start a children's cooking class took seed a few years ago, she said. Initially, she worried that not having a professional cooking background rendered her unqualified to instruct anyone, let alone children.

"It seemed like something someone else should do, but none of the kids in our class are professional cooks, and they were willing to take the leap," Lowman said.

As she thought about how to go about planning the class, she noticed one thing that seemed lacking from available options.

"Almost all of the discussions about kids' cooking classes focus very overtly on nutrition and teaching kids how to feed themselves well," Lowman said. "That's really important, but if they don't feel really empowered to control their situation anyway, it's kind of useless."

Halfway through her first eight-week session, and Lowman's class has exceeded even her own high expectations.

"Their confidence in the kitchen is really growing, so I can just hope it's building outside the kitchen, as well," Lowman said. "It has been almost personally overwhelming, but really fulfilling."

The first session of Kitchen Possible gave 15 students the chance to learn how cooking skills can carry over into their everyday lives. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

Lowman recruited friends to volunteer as the adult team leaders, like Diego Figueroa, 39, a Streeterville resident and self-described "sucker for volunteering."

"It's really fun to see them change and evolve, bit by bit," Figueroa said of his team. "I think from day one, they had this great attitude toward the activities, toward working with friends from their class. They're looking forward to learning things. That's the gratifying part."

As they test out recipes, the chefs-in-training also try new, unfamiliar foods, like parsnips or a cilantro lime crema for their fajitas. They find out whether mango tastes good in barbecue sauce (it does) and what to do when your pizza dough is overworked.

"I never thought I would make a barbecue sauce in my life," said Ruben Diaz, 9. "You get enthused when you cook stuff and test it out. It's really fun."

Katie Lowman helps out one of her Kitchen Possible students during the weekly class. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

Lowman wants to keep the class going, but after the start-up purchases needed to create six cooking stations — not to mention the groceries — she's looking to raise $5,000 through a GoFundMe campaign for future sessions.

And if that doesn't work out, she'll edit and refine her plan, reflect on its flaws and find a way forward — just like in the kitchen.