On a Thursday afternoon about 20 students gather at Shoreline to make gingerbread cookies under the guidance of chef Mark Wadsworth. The Westin Bear Mountain head chef leads the students as they roll out pre-made dough and cut out shapes. Then, while the cookies bake Wadsworth takes them one step back introducing them to dough making.
Icing, decorating and eating finish the afternoon cooking session.
Grade 7 student Tayler Guy isn’t the only one excited about her learning to cook at a free after-school program at Shoreline community middle school.
“Some nights, say my dad comes home or my mom comes home from work, and they don’t feel like cooking … Now I’m getting older and I want to be able to cook sometimes,” Tayler said. “They love it.”
Tayler is now a whiz at whipping up homemade pizza from scratch, or a stir fry, or even eggs Benedict for Sunday brunch, thanks to the time and inspiration of Westin Bear Mountain chef Mark Wadsworth.
Wadsworth took the position in March and knew right away he wanted to do something for the community and for the school where his own love of cooking first caught its spark.
“It’s about giving back to the community, it’s about inspiring people and teaching these kids a little bit of life skills, like I was taught,” Wadsworth said. “They’re having fun, they’re having a blast.”
He learned his first basic cooking skills and decided to pursue his passion as a student at Shoreline. After going through Spectrum community school’s cook training program, he moved on to the Malaspina (now Vancouver Island University) culinary arts program.
Work in the Rockies followed for about four year, the U.K. for 10, then stints in Whistler and Vancouver before his return home to the West Shore.
“I decided it’s time to come back to the Island,” Wadsworth said. “I’ve got kids now, mom and dad are still here, just down the road.”
The idea of giving back to the community through cooking started with inspiration from U.K. chef Jaime Oliver’s campaign to improve school lunches there. A chef Wadsworth once worked under also instilled in him a belief in the importance of teaching young people to cook and eat properly.
“Because our school focus is really about healthy food and healthy lifestyle, it fit really well for us,” said principal Kim Strom. “For Chef Mark to have come back, the timing could not have been better.”
The cookies were a veer from the usual healthy eating choices taught. In prior sessions students learned to make a variety of salads and included ingredients such as local pears and greens.
Other dishes have been handmade pizza, fish tacos with fresh salsa and guacamole and stir fry.
The ingredients are donated by Islands West Produce and the students grow food at the school, helping them to learn about food from the ground up.
“We’ve lost those connections with the farms, the fields and about the seasonalities,” Wadsworth said. “This is just another little step in the direction of getting these kids engaged and excited about learning, cooking.”
Shoreline hopes to continue the program.
“We have a huge interest,” youth program co-ordinator Chris Kruz said. “They’re really learning a lot and they’re really passionate about it.”