TAMPA — Jacqueline Velasquez has always enjoyed being in the kitchen and watching her mother cook.
So, last summer, when the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay asked the 16-year-old if she wanted to attend a weekly cooking class at the posh Epicurean Hotel, she said yes. She prepared meals herself (and ate them), learned new dishes and took the recipes home to mom.
This summer, Velasquez took the class again. Over a bowl of taco chili she prepared for herself Wednesday, she said her cooking skills have gotten even better. Her spaghetti certainly has.
"The way I make it at home is, I ground the beef at home with my mom," the teen said, "but this time, I made it with meatballs, and I thought that was really cool."
Velasquez's pro-tips: "Don't burn yourself, and don't reach over the pot."
The cooking classes are offered by Where Love Grows, an organization that also serves home-cooked dinners to the Boys & Girls Clubs. Founder Vicki Anzalone said the group's goal is to "break the cycle of childhood hunger."
The summer program took shape last year when Anzalone and her family decided to teach youths to cook healthy meals with familiar ingredients. But they didn't know where to hold sessions.
Soon afterward, Anzalone's friend took her to the Epicurean, which opened in 2013 to serve the gastronomically-inclined. The hotel was built in a partnership with Bern's Steak House, the world-famous restaurant across the street that Bern Laxer opened in 1956.
When Anzalone saw the hotel's classroom — with its auditorium, kitchen and rows of cooking stations — she cried. Where Love Grows partnered with the hotel, brought in Epicurean chef Max Sherard to teach the class and recruited 22 attendees through the Boys and Girls Clubs. This year, they have 26 students.
"We know the events will only feed one meal," Anzalone said, "but we hope the skills we instill in them will last a lifetime."
Desmond Saunders, 14, also is in his second year attending the program. Before the classes, he said the extent of his cooking skills was microwaving. Now, he can make several dishes, including his favorites: taco chili and beef pot pie.
Saunders' pro-tip: "Find everything that you like, and put it all together."
Sherard said it's rewarding to see "the looks on the kids' faces when they get to eat something, finally. They were actually able to make something, and it tasted good."
The chef's pro-tip: "Practice."
The children, who are of middle and high school age, already wear chef hats when they cook. When they graduate next week, they'll get aprons and cookbooks with all the recipes they learned. Velasquez said she'll use them to help cook for her family.
"My mom will be like, 'Make one of the recipes that you made there,'" the teen said, "and she'll trust me to do it on my own while she's in the living room.
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"I make it on my own, and it turns out to be fantastic every time."
Contact Emily McConville at (813) 226-3374 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @emmcconville.