Tuesday, September 01, 2015

The Portland Kitchen: Knife Skills and Life Skills

To get to The Portland Kitchen you have to travel to what is often called a fringe neighborhood of the city, code for a place where the houses are smaller and less well-kept, where dead grass sprouts up between abandoned cars and there are no sidewalks for children to ride their bikes on. Far from the hipster enclaves of Alberta, Hawthorne or Mississippi, this neighborhood is not the future location of a Portlandia episode because there's nothing twee, quaint or amusingly quirky about it.

But down in the basement of a church, in a small, worn kitchen built sometime in the seventies for church ladies to host teas and wedding receptions—no stainless steel appliances here—there is magic happening, with sparks flying and some young lives taking a turn for the better. Ostensibly a free after-school program for high school kids to teach them culinary skills, what The Portland Kitchen really does is give them a safe, supportive place to be themselves, or maybe discover who that self might be.

They're also learning some wicked knife skills, and that there's more to food than take-out pizza and sugary soft drinks. To some it's a shock that vegetables like beets come with leafy fronds and that, when roasted, those dirty roots taste amazingly like candy. Or that a pork chop comes from something other than a styrofoam tray.

The real deal is not that they get their food handler's license or can whip up a mean crème brûlée or even that they might actually go into some aspect of the food business. As one young student puts it, it's the first time she's had people believe in her, "thinking that I can do really beautiful cooking, which I can now."

That's a big thing to learn in a small basement kitchen.

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