Cooking is a big passion of mine. Programs that benefit children are pretty high on my list as well. When I heard about what Urban Kitchen was doing in the community, I was naturally drawn to it.

What is Urban Kitchen, you ask? At its core, Urban Kitchen is what happens when a group conscience meets ability and need.

It all started in May 2017. Church pastor Shawn Niles, whom most of us had never heard of, was finally able to talk about a little show he was on called “Master Chef,” hosted by Gordon Ramsey (whom almost everyone has heard of). The show put Shawn on the culinary map in the Valley, introducing him as a world-class chef.

At the same time, Yakima was receiving notoriety for a string of killings in the area. Five murders over a short period of time in a community our size is something that should wake us all up. Thankfully it did. The Together Church hosted a meeting with local families and other churches to talk about what to do and how to create change. Niles was in attendance and brought ideas back to his own congregation. He shared a concept and two members of his church agreed to try it.

Julie Kirchhoff was one of those people. She is a professional chef who graduated from Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Portland in 2007. When Niles suggested teaching children to cook, Kirchhoff jumped at the idea.

David Allan was the third member to join the team. He labels himself as “semi-retired” from Allan Brothers Fruit. In the agriculture industry, that generally means you still go to work every day but just don’t get paid any longer. Allan saw an opportunity to hand down his decades of business knowledge to a younger generation.

With the trio dedicated to offering mentorship to youth in the community, they next needed to determine how. A fundraiser was held the following month and they started to piece the organization together in July 2017. The initial class brought together a dozen children who were as young as 10 years old to participate in restaurant instruction for three months at the Yakima Police Athletic League building in downtown Yakima. Urban Kitchen followed up in 2018 with another first-year course, but expanded the instruction time to four months.

Students start by learning about food safety and take the food handlers licensing test. They move on to knife skills and are presented with their own set to keep. Various instructors help teach the students how to butcher a whole chicken (something I still struggle with today) and learn how to fillet a salmon. Allan said his business classes are half how to get along with people and half how to run a business. One class is titled “How not to be a victim,” while another is on adversity and never giving up, taught by Gilberto Kalombo and his wife, who both work with Niles on another of his businesses called Bite Club Yakima.

Upon completion, graduates from both classes requested a second session to broaden their skills. Eight students started training in October 2018. All sessions finish with a “pop-up restaurant” at the Yakima Valley Museum. I met with the group as they were preparing for their pop-up of six dinners served over three days. What I saw in the YPAL kitchen was an amazing restaurant crew. Aside from the youthful facial features, you would never know these weren’t seasoned chefs.

Oscar Escalante is one of the young chefs. He started his culinary journey with Urban Kitchen at age 10. Now at the ripe old age of 12, he’s creating in ways he never thought possible. Niles told me he asked Oscar what he thought about the experience. Oscar said it was the first time he felt pride in something he had done.

When I met Oscar, he was making a sauce for a first-course menu item that he called “Confusing Sauce.” He said, “This is the first sauce I’ve ever made. I just wanted to try and see if I could make one and kept adding more along the way.” The sauce is an Asian-inspired peanut sauce with heat that comes on at the end and a hint of citrus. The only thing confusing for me was trying to decide on how much I intended to purchase once it was available.

Pride wasn’t the only feeling these kids had. Every one of them said the group became a team, or in some cases a family. Thirteen-year-old Rosa Mendoza said, “I learned how to communicate better. We work well as a team.” Fourteen-year-old Liliana Lanier, while finishing a caramel sauce she created with Christian Ryea, 15, added, “Teamwork is what I got out of this.”

When the weekend finally came for the pop-up restaurant, the students seemed perfectly at ease. This wasn’t a class of individuals, this was a well-oiled machine, with each member of the team in tune with what everyone else was doing. It was like watching ballet. When asked how this was different from the first class, Kirchhoff said, “They are so much more independent. Instead of asking every question, they trust what they know.” Bruce Heard, 13, agreed, saying, “It’s easier this time because we have the knowledge from two classes now.”

The menu was the creation of the students, not the chef. They didn’t just make cookbook recipes either — this was way outside-the-box thinking. One of the starters was pan fried wonton with bok choy, chorizo and the aforementioned confusing sauce. An entree included braised chicken with kimchi fried rice and jicama. And finally, dessert included matcha ice cream with ginger served in a cinnamon sugar tortilla bowl. They succeeded on every dish.

The next class will start this summer. Another group of Yakima youth will hone their culinary skills, thanks to leaders who are dedicated to continuing this unique program through multiple fundraising efforts. One is Restaurant Week, sponsored by the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce, which raised $5,000 last year. They believe it will yield far more in 2019. The course costs approximately $500 per student to cover the knives, food and other expenses.

The Urban Kitchen group hopes to expand its program and continue changing young lives. They are at maximum capacity with a dozen in the YPAL location. Allan said of the program, “You have to chase your vision. We are teaching them they can engage and develop a dream.”

Allan, Niles and Kirchhoff are teaching these students values and helping them develop confidence that can last a lifetime. That’s a program that pays off for our entire community.