Just before I left home at 17, headed for college and the great big world beyond, my mother brought home two chickens and called me into the kitchen. “I’m going to teach you to cut up a whole chicken,” she told me. “This is something you’ll need to know—they charge twice as much for the ones already cut-up.” I watched her deftly cut the chicken into eight pieces in a few minutes. She threw the backbone in a small saucepan to make stock, then silently handed me the knife and watched while I made my own tentative and clumsy work of the second chicken. Because she was there and took the time to teach me, I know how to care for myself and my two children. We gather around the table every night to connect and share our lives, we eat healthy and are rarely sick, and food brings us comfort and joy. But what if she had not been there to share these lessons? Shaleiah Fox asked herself a similar question about the many children aging out of foster care each year: who would teach them these vital lessons? She started the Fresh Chefs Society to offer foster care youth the opportunity to learn the art of cooking from community chefs and culinary experts. Fresh Chefs programs teach valuable cooking skills and nutrition, create connections and bonds through food, and celebrate youth accomplishments and milestones with celebratory meals at local restaurants. As far as Shaleiah’s concerned, these are all our kids, and she aims to make sure they feel empowered, connected, and well-fed.
Shaleiah’s enthusiasm and sunny smile light up a room, and when we visited to learn more about what she’s doing, the scene in the kitchen was loud and happy, with teenagers elbowing one another, a clamor over pots and pans, and the joyful sounds of kids digging into a delicious meal together.
Tell us what you do in a few short sentences.
Fresh Chefs Society connects youth aging out of foster care with anything and everything food! From developing their eating lifestyle to shaping a career, we are here to be a resource for them.
What is your utopian vision for the future of food?
Equal access, where local, healthy food resources can be a part of day-to-day life for everyone in our community.
What is your biggest motivator?
The enthusiasm of the youth we work with. They have such a genuine energy for cooking and trying new things.
What is your favorite cookbook?
It’s not exactly new “news”, but having the First Lady’s attention focused on our food systems and how they are affecting lower socioeconomic status populations has impacted food policy on local levels in a positive way – through grants, raising the profile of the issue, and normalizing eating consciously.
Where do you get culinary inspiration?
From what’s available at our farms and markets; what’s on the menus at our favorite spots; what’s being shared at our friends’ dinner tables.
What are you cooking this week?
Always a big pot of beans, lots of hearty greens before they are switched out for squashes and tomatoes, spring onions, roasted root veggies.
What are your favorite food businesses/organizations in Austin? What are they doing right?
Salt and Time, In.gredients, Tecolote Farms, Hillside Farmacy, Cenote, Hoovers, Boggy Creek Farm, and Homegrown Revival – all these folks understand the importance of using their skills, services, and spaces to give back to their community.
Who is your culinary idol?
Rebecca Meeker, Chef and Project Manager for McGuire Moorman Restaurant Group. She has had an amazing career spanning as far as Taiwan, is a philanthropically-minded Austinite, and an inspiration to us and the youth we work with.
What inspires you?
Watching a friend, family, acquaintance or even a stranger, really enjoy a dish I’ve made – particularly when they are trying something new or out of their normal spectrum of eating; witnessing a youth learning about cooking, being empowered and in turn showing their peer what they’ve just learned; and listening to the stories and memories that emerge when kids are cooking about the family they may not communicate with any longer.
What’s your next big idea?
For every foster family and foster care facility to have direct access to all local food resources in the community.
Kitchen Inspirations :: Inspired by Shaleiah’s visit to Boggy Creek Farm and Chef Rebecca Meeker’s Roasted Carrot Salad, we created our own springtime salad. click here for the recipe.
see more of Elizabeth’s work on Haymakers