Personality: Karla Lacey-Minors

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She goes by the name Chef Karla. Her mission: to teach Sacramento kids how to cook. 

A dozen chefs are working in a commercial kitchen in South Sacramento. Like synchronized swimmers&emdash;moving in near silence and perfect coordination&emdash;they are preparing a mouthwatering lunch for 40: Chinese chicken, shepherd’s pie with potato cheddar crust, garden salad, lime yogurt cake and zucchini cupcakes with cinnamon cream-cheese frosting.

The remarkable part of this ordinary scene is that all of the chefs are younger than 12.

They dutifully wash their hands. They calmly wield knives to slice bread and chop vegetables. They deftly handle dough destined to be delicate biscuits. And, occasionally, they ask the woman running the kitchen for guidance:

How many desserts are we making?

Are we doing a basic place setting?

One of the potatoes has brown and black spots. What do I do?

Welcome to Jr. Chef Camp, a nonprofit cooking program for kids ages 10 to 15.

The creator of the year-round program is 46-year-old Karla Lacey-Minors, who left a corporate banking job in Bermuda in 2003 and less than a year later started Karla’s Kitchen Table, a series of cooking-related programs in Sacramento.

At first, Lacey-Minors ran a personal chef business, preparing meals in the homes of people who couldn’t cook for themselves or had special needs: a woman allergic to wheat products, for example; a new mother exhausted from the rigors of parenthood; a woman recovering from anorexia and bulimia; a man recuperating from an illness and in need of a major diet change.

Cooking for people in such fragile conditions was gratifying, Lacey-Minors recalls, but a bigger desire was percolating that she couldn’t quite articulate.

All the while, Lacey-Minors shared the alarm of so many adults watching the rising rates of obesity and diabetes among the young. Lacey-Minors&emdash;accustomed to inferior produce in Bermuda because of long shipment times&emdash;was especially confounded that overweight children and regular fast-food dining existed in California, a place where superior fruits and vegetables are abundant.

I remember waiting to pick up my daughter from a gymnastic lesson once. I was looking at all these overweight kids . . . and I thought, ‘I’m surrounded by people who don’t look healthy,’ Lacey-Minors says. How can this be in a place like California, which is the fresh-food bowl of America?

And so she started Karla’s Kitchen Table, a company that includes her highly popular cooking camps for teens and preteens.

The five-session programs are held on weekends during the school year, on weekdays in summer. (The cost: $225.) Participants gather at the Antioch Progressive Family Life Center in South Sacramento, where they learn basic and advanced cooking skills from the woman they call Chef Karla.

The kids learn knife safety; how to set a table; the importance of food labels; how to cut a whole chicken; best shopping practices at a grocery store; how to browse and buy intelligently at farmers markets; how to create a menu on a budget; the basics of nutrition and the food pyramid; and, finally, how food grows by touring an organic urban farm.    

 

Ultimately, Lacey-Minors’ goal for her students is even grander than all those skills combined.

I want kids to know that no matter who they are&emdash;their language, race or culture&emdash;with every other child in this world they have one thing in common: They all eat, she explains. They can always connect with others on the planet through food.

And after a tour of a Sacramento County urban farm, the kids learn to connect what they see growing on a vine or underground to the meal they will later make. They also learn that food typically isn’t cosmetically perfect but is still perfectly edible.

Their perception of food is what’s on the grocery store shelf&emdash;packaged, bagged or canned, says Shawn Harrison, executive director of Soil Born Farm, a 3-acre urban farm on Hurley Way in Sacramento. After this [farm tour], they realize that not all food looks like what you get at the supermarket.

Through her Jr. Chef Program, Lacey-Minors has taught some 900 children&emdash;kids of all backgrounds possessing various levels of cooking experience, motivation and imagination.

I didn’t really know anything about cooking, says 11-year-old Bryan Taylor on the last day of the Jr. Chef Camp’s beginner classes. I would try to help my mom, but I wasn’t that good. Now I’ve cooked breakfast&emdash;eggs and bacon&emdash;a few times, but my mom [still] does the pancakes.

Allison Barcelon, also 11, gushes about how cool it was to see a local butcher demonstrate to her class the proper way to cut up a whole chicken.   

Andrew Smith, 12, has taken the beginner and advanced classes, and traveled this past March to Bermuda with Lacey-Minors and four other local junior chefs. There, they filmed a pilot for a television show called Jr. Chef Central . . . Your Window to the World! It’s currently being shopped for syndication for the fall 2008 season.

Now, Smith and the other four kids who went to Bermuda help Lacey-
Minors as apprentice chefs with novice students in her beginner classes. 

I like the idea of putting different things together and getting totally different results back, Smith says. Like when you put flour and yeast and sugar together, you can get cake, muffins or pizza dough.

That’s precisely the goal Brenda Ruiz has in mind when she guest lectures and demonstrates at the Jr. Chef Camp advanced classes. There, she teaches one session on breads: sourdough, challah, and sweet and savory tarts.

We try to do a couple things with the same set of skills so they can be versatile, says Ruiz, a chef at The Kitchen restaurant. So they learn how to make dinner rolls, a loaf and hot cross buns.

The biggest kick for Smith, though, is getting in a situation where there’s a lot to do in a short time and making it all come together. It fills you with a sense of reward, he says, because you did something successful and you created something that everyone likes.

Smith’s mom, Kay Overman, says the cooking classes have boosted her young son’s self-esteem by helping him build a separate identity from his older, athletic brother.

Undaunted by his age, Smith recently applied for a job at a local dessert restaurant. The adolescent&emdash;who has cleared a space in his bedroom closet for his kitchen gadgetry collection, which includes a pasta machine and food processor&emdash;already is scoping out midtown real estate for a future restaurant, his mother reports.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of celebrity chef television shows is helping to fuel many kids’ enthusiasm for cooking&emdash;as well as enrollment in the Jr. Chef cooking camps. 

It’s definitely cool to cook now, and a lot of people see being a chef as an alternative to being a sports or rock star, says Lacey-Minors. But my thing is the connections that kids make with each other and the world around them.