How One Restaurant Teaches Underserved Kids to Cook — on Zoom

A student cooks at Kitchen Patrol | Credit: Lissa Gotwals

In 2015, when chef Andrea Reusing opened a new private dining room at her acclaimed Chapel Hill, North Carolina, restaurant Lantern, her vision for the space transcended corporate events and parties. She designed the room with an open kitchen and a single large island, which she wanted to surround with members of her community. Partnering with the University of North Carolina’s Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture, she and co-founders Vera Fabian and Lydia Campbell launched Kitchen Patrol, a program of weekly cooking classes with fourth and fifth grade students from lower-resource families. 

“We start off with basic cooking, so kids can come home from school and make family dinners,” she says. “We want to instill a basic feeling of joy from cooking — that it’s not drudgery.” 

Improving children’s access to food is just one of the ways that Reusing, winner of the 2011 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast, has been a voice for progress in the industry. In addition to founding Kitchen Patrol, she’s advocated for action against climate change and for food policy change, and she also works with local farmers to demand higher prices for their products. In July, Lantern eliminated tips and implemented an 18 percent charge to help guarantee fair wages to staff in the front and back of the house — a move that is quite progressive in the industry, but long overdue, many say.

Last year, the COVID pandemic shut down both Lantern and Kitchen Patrol — but not for long. As Reusing’s staff kept cooking to keep paying the bills (food for school districts, frozen meals for seniors), Kitchen Patrol also pivoted. 

Washing lettuces | Credit: Lissa Gotwals

In March of 2021, with a grant from No Kid Hungry, the program went virtual, holding classes on Zoom and using grant money to pack all of the ingredients required for a meal into boxes delivered to each family. From 12 to 14 kids a semester, Kitchen Patrol expanded to reach 50 households, or almost 150 people including families. 

As families across the globe have become more sensitive to the challenges of virtual learning, Reusing says there were some upsides. In some ways, Zoom allowed the Kitchen Patrol team to focus more on teaching skills instead of managing jumpy 12-year-olds, since the kids were cooking at home with their own families. And while Zoom fatigue at the end of a virtual school day is real, the excitement of having a package delivered broke up some of the monotony. Kids were excited to see each other in their homes, and teachers would periodically open the class up for conversation to give everyone a chance to interact. (Kitchen Patrol got Chromebooks for those who didn’t have computers.) 

The nature of the classes changed, too. Reusing led a few classes herself, but turned the rest over to guest chefs, including Ricky Moore of Saltbox Seafood Joint in Durham, NC; Colombian-born Angela Salamanca of Centro in Raleigh, NC; and Von Diaz, a cookbook author and scholar who teaches at UNC-Chapel Hill, specializing in Puerto Rican food in the South.

“In terms of skills, a lot of it went from fundamentals — how to boil or fry — to immersing themselves in a travelogue sort of thing, getting the whole narrative of the chef and what their typical day is and why they do what they do,” says Reusing. “A lot of these kids have a real interest in culinary careers, and it was meaningful for us to be able to introduce the kids to people who don’t work in traditional restaurant jobs — people who are writing and research and food activists.”

Moore, for example, opened his class with a primer on soigné, the culinary world’s term for polish and perfection. He has kids of his own, Reusing says, so he knows that “if you talk down to kids, they’ll stop listening.” Every step pointed back to the concept, including the balance of acid and salt. 

“Anyone can blanch and shock green beans, but the power of his passion and his experience — that’s contagious and way more meaningful than a knife skills class,” she says.

Chef Andrea Reusing teaches knife skills | Credit: Lissa Gotwals

Moore’s Kitchen Patrol class prepared red rice with shrimp and sausage, plus lemon custard cakes, detailing how to chop vegetables, sauté, simmer rice, and beat egg whites. For her session, Diaz demonstrated smoky beans, coconut collards, and a coconut tembleque, or pudding. Other classes focus on making sushi, soup, and galettes, always emphasizing the histories of global cuisines, core kitchen skills, and improvisation — adapting recipes to use what you have on hand.

Reusing is excited about the opportunity to reach so many more people with the new format. Going forward, she imagines a hybrid Kitchen Patrol program including both in-person and online classes, where a group of kids join on site every week or two. 

Next, Reusing wants to formalize the charitable work that Lantern does. She is in the process of launching Lantern Table, a 501(c) nonprofit that will have partial ownership of the restaurant and create a food business incubator for historically marginalized cooks. 

“Profit or nonprofit, restaurants are already such a big part of their individual communities,” she says. “We’ve done a lot, feeding people and making people aware of local food economies, but we’ve also been at the forefront of changing the conversation about what labor is in the United States today. We were always kind of a nonprofit as a restaurant, so we decided to make this work more intentional.”

Recently, Lantern opened for outdoor dining on the patio and sidewalk — “Real plates! Real glasses!” the website boasts — and suspended its takeout service. They’re also working on a reopening plan for indoor dining. Reusing says that the current service model has been fun, and she has a group of new, energetic team members to thank.

“I haven’t had a hard time finding staff, actually — we hired 15 people in the last two weeks who are all pretty amazing,” she says. “I don’t know if the fair wage charge had anything to do with it, but we’re very happy about it.”