Ry’Anna Moore leaned over a stainless steel surface as Chef Kevin Sousa eyeballed cup after cup of heavy cream.
The 17-year-old junior from Pittsburgh Obama had never tasted lychee or played with a blow torch, but thanks to the Steel Chef culinary training program, she was about to cook with both.
Twelve students ages 14 to 18 have spent every Monday since mid-January traveling to the kitchens of six local chefs, learning restaurant skills, trying recipes and getting a taste for different cuisines. The program culminated Monday with a live, two-hour cooking competition at the Father Ryan Arts Center in McKees Rocks.
“Being a chef is not just about cooking great meals,” said participating chef Jess Rattanni, who cooks at the Pittsburgh Zoo. “It's also about sharing with others.”
At the zoo, students got to meet tiger cubs and check out the small catering kitchen that accommodates hundreds of meals at a time. In Braddock, Sousa explained the Superior Motors ethos and shared with teens his essentials for food prep and foraging.
Mentorship and exposure to new skills and ideas can open the mind to opportunities these kids may have previously assumed were off limits, Sousa said.
“You can play around with [food]. It’s like painting,” said Moore. “You can explore different colors and stuff, and bring out what part of you that nobody really sees.”
Dwayne Gordon, 17, took an interest in cooking from his mother and stepfather. In addition to dishes like French toast casserole, paella and pierogi, the Holy Family Academy senior said he’s loved learning the specific skills that help kitchens run smoothly.
Jenifer Davison, artist-in-residence with community advocacy group Focus on Renewal, which sponsors the programing, said the students’ reactions really changed a few sessions in. At first, they were hesitant, but over time, came into their own.
“It’s been interesting to see them in the kitchen together,” Davison said. “They’ll be like ‘Behind you! Knife behind you!’ They hold their knives down at their side. They’re really learning how to maneuver around a kitchen and how to work as a team.”
The Steel Chef program was born from a need to provide more opportunities around what McKees Rocks-area teens were already interested in, said Lydia Morin, director of engagement and enterprise at Focus on Renewal.
In McKees Rocks, "transportation is a big issue, violence is a big issue, but food is something that everyone agreed [on],” Morin said. And access to food was something they could begin to change.
She said organizers started with arts classes – like screenprinting, painting, ceramics and digital media – but the kids always congregated first around making a quick meal together, often from donations provided by 412 Food Rescue and the Environmental Charter School. A proper culinary arts program felt like the logical next step, Morin said, "but we didn’t have any money for it.”
Instead, they borrowed. Proceeds from tonight’s Steel Chef Cookoff will cover not just the event, but all chef programming over the last eight weeks.
More information is available at forstorox.org.