In the fall of 2016, Princeton University’s foodservice team added something new to its repertoire: teaching kitchens. In the years since, the teaching kitchen environment has provided a way to educate students, staff and the Princeton, N.J., community about health, wellness, biodiversity and sustainability, all while imparting basic cooking skills. Read on for a smattering of takeaways from the program.
Make use of the space you have
When Princeton started its teaching kitchens program, there was “a huge learning curve,” says Smitha Haneef, assistant vice president of University Services and leader of Campus Dining. But the team didn’t let that stop them and considered ways to move forward, which included hosting classes in the dining hall after hours. “We did not have an ideal infrastructure, meaning a dedicated teaching kitchen, so we use our existing infrastructure,” she says.
Get on students’ level
It’s important to think about teaching kitchens in ways that students can relate to, says Melissa Mirota, campus wellness dietitian, mentioning social media, specifically. “We’ve done teaching kitchens that were extremely popular utilizing our [university] Snapchat … that set a record for views campuswide,” she says. “So really figuring out how to meet the students where they are in a way that doesn’t necessarily feel like teaching.”
Empathy can be a ‘side effect’
“A peripheral thing that comes from all these teaching kitchens is it kind of brings us into each other’s world a little bit—it’s a lot of fun,” says Executive Chef Brad Ortega. “When [students] get into your kitchen and start to see the people in there and get to know you and get to see your walk-ins and your storage spaces and your work spaces, I think they develop a better understanding and a different kind of appreciation for what we do. And vice versa.”
Find ways to create a larger impact
Princeton’s dining team has partnered with local organizations to take its teaching off campus, too. Bringing its community-focused vision to life, members of the dining team have taught elementary students about the benefits of seasonal vegetables, and residents in socioeconomically diverse regions healthy recipes that are accessible and easy to reproduce.
“We are looking for platforms to share our expertise around health and well-being and sustainable food systems within our community,” says Haneef. “And we took a spectrum of life from child care to senior center—for every segment, we want to be able to share our knowledge.”
Make it collaborative
Rather than having a set program for every lesson, “Most of the time, we’ll sit with [participants] beforehand, and they usually have ideas of what they’d like to learn,” says Ortega. From there, the group will get to work, with instructors pushing seasonal and sustainable items where they can. In terms of curriculum, “It’s varied,” he says. “We try to make it so they can learn how to make vinaigrette, sauces, soup … and teach them grilling, braising, stewing, so once they develop that basic skill, it can apply to all kinds of things.”
Get others involved
On campus, students aren’t the only ones grasping kitchen basics with the help of the dining team—university departments are able to utilize the cooking classes as team-building exercises for faculty and staff as well. “Usually, whether it’s students, whether it’s administrators who come to participate, it takes on a bit of a party atmosphere,” says Ortega. “Everybody takes the cooking seriously, but everybody has a good time. And we often have repeat customers also.”