WATSONVILLE—After years of cooking lessons conducted from push-carts wheeled into its classrooms, Starlight Elementary School on Wednesday unveiled a professional, state-of-the-art teaching kitchen created to imbue a knowledge of—and possibly a passion for—the culinary arts.
The facility is located adjacent to a garden, designed to be used in conjunction with the kitchen.
Together these are called Emeril’s Culinary Garden and Teaching Kitchen, named after celebrity chef Emeril Legasse, whose 10-year-old foundation based in New Orleans was created to inspire young people through culinary education.
That organization contributed $500,000 toward the project, and Pajaro Valley Unified School District used another $500,000 in developer fees. Donors from the community supplied the remainder.
Foundation President Brian Kish said he has seen similar programs around the U.S., but none like the one at Starlight.
“To see what this school district and this school did is unbelievable,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve seen the passion and the community that happened here. This is incredibly special. This is a starter. This is the beginning and has been the beginning and it will continue to grow in this community.”
The spacious kitchen includes four wide work stations with stovetops and vent hoods, and two convection ovens.
Classes have already begun for older grades, with fourth- and fifth-grade classes learning how to chop and roast vegetables. Younger grades will begin their lessons next year, and eventually the facility will open up to other schools.
It will also host community events such as family cooking nights and nutrition classes from Second Harvest Food Bank, says Starlight Principal Jackie Medina.
“Today is really exciting,” she said. “Our community has come out and wrapped their arms around this project.”
Medina says the 45-minute weekly classes in both the garden and kitchen incorporate both Next Generation Science Standards and math.
And that multifaceted educational opportunity—with a focus on “whole child, whole community, whole family,” is an important aspect of the kitchen, says PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez.
“This is exactly what we want to continue to build,” she says. “We want to continue to build a place where children can follow their passions, interests and talent with fantastic programs—life-changing programs—in 21st century, state-of-the-art facilities.”
Chef instructor Alejandro Ochoa, who attended San Francisco Cooking School, says he wanted to get away from the hectic restaurant industry.
He says he wants to give his students agency over what they eat and how to cook for themselves. Last year he taught the kids how to make strawberry salsa, a recipe many of them said they made at home with their families.
Noting the student population is largely Latinx, he says plans to incorporate that into his lessons.
“I definitely want these kids to leave the class with a sense of understanding about how important their culture is and their food is,” he says. “The tomatoes, chiles, corn—all these things come from South America and Mexico. I want these kids to know that history, and be proud of and of feeding the world.”
Santa Cruz County nonprofit Life Lab Co-executive Director Judit Camacho, whose organization developed the curriculum, described the program—unique to PVUSD—as“the seeds of change.”
“These are the seeds where we create hope, where we create commitment, where we create community, where we create possibilities for children in the future,” she said.