Cooking classes are exciting because they hold the promise of exquisite culinary creations and delicious, heartwarming meals. They are happy events sprinkled with colorful mixing bowls, shiny steel utensils, cleverly nested measuring cups, nifty peelers and can-openers and featuring mystery recipes and ingredients. Cooking classes can be even more delightful when the students are elementary school students who run into the room, bright-eyed and eager, their minds filled with curiosity and excitement. They become doubly rewarding as these young people experiment with different flavors and textures, try new recipes and learn to prepare delicious, nourishing and budget-friendly meals for their families.

Carolyn Collette is a volunteer culinary instructor for La Soupe, a Cincinnati-based non-profit. She leads La Soupe’s “Cincinnati Gives a Crock” after-school cooking program, which is funded by Green Umbrella, an alliance that works towards environmental sustainability in the region. Carolyn was teaching a class recently when she noticed two little sisters in her class with exemplary knife skills. When asked, the girls shared with pride that their mom was a chef! Carolyn later learned that the girls’ mom was Tammy McMillan, a recent graduate of Freestore Foodbank’s Cincinnati COOKS! program.

Carolyn and her husband, Mike Collette are long-time supporters of the Freestore Foodbank. Needless to say, Carolyn was delighted to hear about Cincinnati COOKS! in such an unlikely setting. Mike had served on the Board of Trustees of the Freestore Foodbank for many years, where he became closely involved with the development of the Cincinnati COOKS program. “We were captivated by the idea that this program could help individuals get back on their feet by teaching them valuable skills,” Carolyn remembers.

The Collettes took a personal interest in the program and started the tradition of hosting an annual “Back to School” celebration in their home in late summer every year, catered by Cincinnati Cooks Catering. Their goal was two-fold: to see their friends before the end of the summer and to provide a safe environment for the graduates of Cincinnati COOKS! to practice taking orders, serving hors d’ oeuvers and mixing drinks. It gave Carolyn great satisfaction to run into the daughters of a COOKS! graduate in her cooking class.

Tammy graduated from Class 162 of the Cincinnati COOKS! program. She hopes to join Second Course so that she can get some advanced skills before starting her our business. “I used to work in a local transportation company because I did not have any skills,” Tammy states. “Being a part of the Cincinnati COOKS! program has widened my horizons. The program has given me focus and made me feel like I too can pursue my dream of a career like everyone else.”

Her daughters, Ree’Moni and Ar’Moni joined the La Soupe cooking class at Lockland Elementary School because their mom highly recommended it. “Being a trained chef and a recent graduate of the Cincinnati COOKS! program, I could not think of a more valuable skill set for them to pick up,” Tammy explained to me. “We love every bit of it,” the girls say. “We enjoy being with all the other kids. But the most important thing is that we learn to cook on our own. We get to try preparing new dishes here and then we take them home and make it for our families. That is the best part.”

Cincinnati COOKS! is a free culinary job training program for under- and unemployed individuals. During the 10-week course, students learn the mechanics of a commercial kitchen, as well as professional and life skills to ensure success in the food service industry and in their personal lives. Since its inception in 2001, more than 1,500 individuals have graduated from the program. To learn more about Cincinnati COOKS! click here.