New culinary program at the Brightwood support center offers families a way to connect over food.
By: Neil Strebig
Emily Larsen quietly moves around her kitchen as children hoot and holler in the nearby gymnasium. She silently packs each hand-made lunch into a rolling cooler which she’ll deliver to each classroom.
Just as Larsen begins to depart from her work space a young girl walks up, arms out-stretched, and embraces Larsen. She asks, “What’s for lunch?”
“Cheese quesadillas and tomato soup,” Larsen replies watching the young girl smile in delight before trotting back into the gymnasium.
Later Larsen jests, “I get paid in hugs.”
Larsen runs the culinary program at Providence Connections in Brightwood. Larsen started with the center in January of last year and despite describing herself as a “self-taught” chef she has been able to effectively change the way both children and their parents look at food.
“It’s a change not just in the classroom but how parents are looking at food,” executive director, Samantha Ellwood said. “I think it has made parents’ job at home easier because they now feel confident to introduce new foods they might have be intimidated by, or afraid their kids weren’t going to eat.”
A New Hampshire native, Larsen originally started her professional career in the marketing field before getting a culinary itch. She began exploring the restaurant industry, learning as she went. She quickly learned that experience is often more valuable than education in the profession, opting to forgo the financial burden of a traditional culinary education. Her decision ultimately led her to Pittsburgh where she fell in love with the opportunity at Providence Connections – a chance to cook and educate.
Currently Larsen operates a scratch kitchen and believes that it isn’t helping anyone to rely on processed foods. According to Ellwood, Providence does not allow any food from home on property in order to help maintain their standard of healthy eating. Both Ellwood and Larsen acknowledged they take a number of precautions dealing with food allergens and sensitivity issues at the center. Larsen has completely omitted both peanut and pork products from her kitchen.
“You have so much more control and control over what goes in them [dishes],” Larsen said about implementing a scratch kitchen.
Larsen’s passion for cooking shines through in her approach not just towards teaching students the basics of healthy eating and culinary practices, but also encouraging them to be vocal about their likes and dislikes.
“Kids are allowed to voice their opinion on food, as long as they do so politely,” she said.
Such vocalization has seen the word “nasty” become extinct in a kitchen often filled with children and teenagers. Larsen cooks and teaches for children in both the childcare and the after school programs. She admits it is fun to see how the various ages react to different foods and techniques. But for her, the most important goal is to give the children confidence. Her menu and recipe-developing classes allow kids a chance to grow their literacy and math skills that go beyond the reach of the Providence kitchen.
“[It goes] Beyond just how to cook,” said Ellwood. “It is how it has impacted other areas when they go to school.”
Larsen has also started her own Instagram account, ‘Providentialchef’ as her main way to communicate with parents.
Ellwood jokes she’s seen the comment, “My kids eat better than I do,” at least once a week on the account, but she is quick to cite the positive reaction it has sparked from families. The account has helped unite the wellness conversation both inside and outside of Providence Connections.
Along with the injection of social media, Larsen has teamed up with Pittsburgh’s 412 Food Rescue to help combat food waste within the city. She’ll use rescued items mostly for meals at the center but will also offer them to families for use outside of her own kitchen. With each item, Larsen adds an accompanying recipe card on how to prepare the item in case anyone is unfamiliar with the ingredient.
“She is looking at ways not just to give the families the food we get from 412 Food Rescue but ensuring they can use it and know how to cook with it,” Ellwood said.
When asked about the impact her methodology has had, Larson excitedly retells a story of a young camper who went home – and with the help of his older brother – made his family chicken fingers with mac and cheese.
And while Larsen admits the dinner selection might not have been exciting, “It’s awesome he felt that he could participate with his family like that.”
For more information on Providence Connections youth programs visit their website.