By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Joshua James wants his diabetic mother to eat healthier food, but just a few months ago he didn't know anything about cooking.
"I knew the basic stuff, like making peanut butter and jelly," James said with a laugh.
The 19-year-old resident of Harlem's Drew Hamilton Houses demonstrated his new culinary skills on Monday, whipping up the filling for raspberry Tiramisu and spreading olive oil over garlic bread to be served with a ground turkey lasagna and a salad made with Boston lettuce.
James spent the last two months as one of 10 people in the first New York City Housing Authority’s Teen Chef Program.
Sponsored by Rachael Ray’s Yum-O! organization and working in partnership with the Sylvia Center and the Children’s Aid Society, the program taught the young men and women such cooking skills as how to dice veggies and follow recipes.
"Most of these guys couldn't cut an onion when they started. Now they can saute, break down an onion. [They] learned kitchen safety skills, organizational skills and following directions," said chef Hollie Greene, educational director at the Sylvia Center and head chef for the program.
The group also learned basic skills such as working well with others, being punctual and, most importantly, being open to new things.
Monday's tastings included a chive flower and a black carrot.
"The rule is you have to try everything. You don't have to like it," Greene said.
Mishawn Scott, 18, of the Polo Grounds, balked at first about the idea of using ground turkey in the lasagna, but Greene talked about the lower fat content of the meat.
Two team captains helped give orders in the preparation of the lasagna and the dessert. They worked together to pull the meal together in just about two hours.
"I really want them to learn how in a kitchen everyone pulls their own weight, even the dishwasher," said Greene, a classically trained chef with a degree from The French Culinary Institute.
The course was also designed to give the participants a peek into the world of the culinary arts in case they're interested in entry-level jobs in kitchens or pursuing further education in culinary school.
Douglas Canady, 21, a resident of Drew Hamilton Houses, says he's now considering culinary school or nursing school. Well over 6 feet tall, Canady stooped low to Julienne an onion, winning praise from Greene for his proficiency.
"I learned how everyone plays their part in a restaurant. A guy can be peeling potatoes for six months and then get a promotion," he said. "I just like making food for people. I like the reaction I get when people say: 'This guy knows how to cook.'"
For Tyrell Roots, 21, also a resident of Drew Hamilton Houses, the motivation was simpler.
"I took the class to stay off the streets," he said.
Scott agreed: "This program helps keep me out of trouble," he explained.
Renee Lindquist, director of Drew Hamilton Community Center, said she purposely picked more difficult students for the program because many needed a push down the path of choosing a career. Some are young fathers who need to start earning a living, while others lacked direction.
"Some of these guys are getting older or are already fully grown adults," she said.
"I asked them what are they going to do with themselves? If they don't want to go to college there are other options and other careers they can pursue," she said.
And there have been other benefits. One student slimmed down after learning about healthy eating.
Lindquist says she's seen maturation and growth in almost all of the students.
"They had to be punctual and learn to meet deadlines. They had to learn how to move around a kitchen and work well with others," Lindquist said.
"They became accountable not just for themselves, but for others. And they had to make up their own minds to be here, despite what some of their friends on the street thought."
As he sat down to eat the lasagna and Tiramisu, Marc Donate, 15, talked about the new knife skills he acquired during the program and how he tasted new fruits and vegetables.
"Honestly, my mom forced me to take the class to learn new things but I'm glad I came," Donate said. "It feels good to know I helped make this."