Learning to Cook – Cooking to Learn

Teamwork: Leslie, Yuleisi, Henry and Pablo

Teamwork: Leslie, Yuleisi, Henry and Pablo

Bright futures ahead for students at KIDS Restaurant

In my past life as a New Yorker, anytime a new buzzed-about restaurant or food adventure hit the street, I would trip over myself to see what the fuss was all about. I collected menus and matchbooks just as one might do by collecting stamps in a passport, using them to remember journeys past. Similarly, as an Antigüeñan for almost nine months now, I have dined at the hole-in-the-wall with an hour wait, suffered at the hands of supposedly world-class chefs and been dazzled by unfussy fare prepared by unsuspecting street vendors and roadside stalls.

But never in my culinary adventures have I come across anything quite like KIDS Restaurant, a bi-monthly eatery operated by children ages 10-17. Here, children from the surrounding areas such as San Gaspar Vivar, San Juan del Obispo and San Pedro las Huertas are taught and trained in the art of hospitality.

From line cooks to pastry chefs to waiters, hostesses and bussers—each student at KIDS holds one of these titles at one time or another. Most of the boys barely need to shave their upper lips, but each participant takes his or her role just as seriously as an employee at some of the most acclaimed restaurants in town.

KIDS Restaurant is an offshoot of the T.E.S.S. Unlimited Education Center in San Gaspar Vivar, a non-profit founded by Tessa de Goede de Ordóñez, who first traveled to Guatemala from Holland in 2008. Like many education-oriented non-profits, T.E.S.S.’s center offers after-school classes in computation, English and other useful skills. However, cooking classes—including nutrition
education and restaurant theory—are the heart of the operation.

Alice Lai, director of T.E.S.S.’s center, explains that KIDS Restaurant was developed to give its pupils a chance to practice what they learn in class with real, paying customers. The students study English so that they can communicate with patrons, practice their computer skills to look for recipes and design menus, and draw on their knowledge of nutrition to select top-notch ingredients at the market.

When asked why KIDS Restaurant was started, Lai says, “Antigua is based on tourism. (Most of the businesses) are restaurants or hotels, so we wanted to prepare (the kids) in something useful for them later in their future … they already have the experience—how to cook, all the theory, the pressure over being in a restaurant …” Lai and de Goede believe this gives them a leg up in an already competitive job market.

How do the kids feel about it? Judging from my recent experience, they love it. As I entered the kitchen, the line cooks were bent over their stoves or cutting boards looking very serious. Intent on re-creating their chef’s recipes with precision, they answered my questions politely (English only in the kitchen, Lai informs me), but never let their attention stray too long from the tasks at hand. The wait staff was in a flurry preparing the dining room with tablecloths and napkins and menus decorated with photos of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower for that night’s French dinner. Their attention to detail was rewarded and they beamed with pride when they served that evening’s fare.

The skills and knowledge that the students have acquired at KIDS flow over into their home lives as well. Lai and de Goede have received nothing but rave reviews from parents.

“A mom once came to the center crying, and Tessa thought, ‘Oh no, what’s going on?’… But the mother said, ‘I am so happy that I am crying. Last night, I came back home from work, and my son prepared a whole dinner. The table was set—fork, knife, napkin—the food was on the table, everything was prepared. You are really giving my kid something.’ That’s why she came to Tessa.”

Oh, and how was the food? Well, all I can say is my dinner companions and I cleaned our plates with gusto!
The cost of dinner at KIDS is Q75 for three courses and a smoothie. Other drinks and tip are not included. All proceeds go to providing field trips to local eateries like Peña del Sol, Ubi’s Sushi and the Chocolate Museum, giving the students an opportunity to observe, eat and learn from industry insiders. For more information and locations, you can go to www.kidsrestaurant.org.

You can make a reservation at kidsrestaurant@gmail.com or call 4550-7798 (English, Dutch and Spanish spoken

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