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Life Lessons Served Hot

After school most days, the basement of Calvary Baptist Church in Chinatown is abuzz with the sounds of vegetables being chopped, recipes being read aloud and young people laughing. Around dinnertime the smell of a fresh-cooked meal begins wafting from the parish kitchen as the high school students pull the results from the oven.

The young people are Washington, D.C., students who have signed up for Brainfood, a nonprofit that specializes in teaching teenagers exemplary kitchen skills.

“I keep coming back because I want to be a chef one day, and this is giving me great skills,— 16-year-old Jovell Rhock said at a recent cooking class. “Before Brainfood, I didn’t really cook like I cook now. I just used the microwave.—

For the past 10 years, Brainfood has been offering free cooking classes and life lessons to the youngsters. The program directors and coordinators are not chefs, but they are professionals with degrees in youth development. While Brainfood specializes in cooking classes, the larger objective, they said, is to keep kids off the street and give them a safe place to go.

“They are really good, nice, smart people who just need some positive reinforcement,— Executive Director Paul Dahm said. “We wanted to create a safe environment where they are not going to get hurt, where they can’t make bad decisions.—

Twice a week, a class of 10 to 20 students meets either in the Chinatown kitchen or at an alternate location in Columbia Heights. The classes are free to any students who attend public or private school in D.C., although the program focuses primarily on students who don’t have access to enrichment programs. During the two-and-a-half-hour classes, students learn things like how to use a knife properly and how to make a tasty lemon chicken.

“There’s a hundred things you can learn from something as simple as a chocolate chip cookie— recipe, Dahm said. Students “have to read and do math and work the science— of baking.

Two full-time staff members oversee the cooking, and occasionally local chefs such as Teddy Folkman of Granville Moore’s or Bryan Moscatello of Potenza will stop by and teach a class.

“I believe in what they are doing,— Moscatello said. “Ever since I was young and sitting in on my mother’s home economics classes, it has been instilled in me that being in the kitchen is far more than just a way to gain nourishment. The students are learning life skills, teamwork, problem solving, mentoring and developing creativity.—

The classes also focus on nutrition and portion control with the hope that it will teach the teenagers to eat properly and take care of their bodies.

“I learned how to make the food that I like but with healthier ingredients,— Faatima Muhammad said. The Brainfood classes help her relax as she waits to hear from college admissions boards, she added.

One former student said he owes his higher education to Brainfood. Kevin Guzman, who works as a chef and manager at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, attended classes in 1998 and 1999, when he was in the seventh grade. When it was time for him to go to college, Guzman turned to the organization for a recommendation letter for the Culinary Institute of America.

“They’ve been a big part of my life; they’ve helped me out in so many ways,— Guzman said. “They wrote me this amazing, incredible reference letter that helped me get into the CIA.—

After Guzman graduated from the CIA, Brainfood helped him get a job in the Capitol, which led to the White House job.

“Cooking is what I do — there’s no other option,— Guzman said. “I don’t know what I would do— if I hadn’t taken classes at Brainfood. “I’d probably be in the fast food service or at some sort of retail store.—

Tonight, the students of Brainfood will be teaming up with chefs like Moscatello and Folkman to compete in the 3rd Annual Brainfood Grill-Off. The teams will be given a surprise pantry list of ingredients and a set amount of time to create a dish that will be judged by a representative from L’Academie de Cuisine and other local foodies. Corporations can also buy spots on the team and join in the friendly competition. The event gives the students a chance to show off all that they’ve learned and have some fun.

“We keep calling it the un-Washington fundraiser,— Dahm said. “It’s not in a hotel, there’s very little speech-giving and the teams are trash talking back and forth.—

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