My parents have always been incredible examples to me. They both left busy, ambitious jobs in Washington, D.C. to move me and my two brothers to Costa Rica when we were four, five, and seven. We grew up on a remote plot of land, with packs of half-wild dogs, two-thousand meters above sea-level.
To make money, they started a catering company, which eventually became a restaurant. When the restaurant started to flail, we offered cooking classes. Most of the clients for these classes were people’s maids (lots of folks have maids in Costa Rica). But for every three paying clients, we took on one person pro-bono. We’d find these women (yes, they were pretty much all women), through friends or employees of the restaurant.
The class was called a basic cooking class, and taught everything from knife skills to how to make my great-grandmother’s rugelach pastry dough. We even taught the class to kids; I took it when I was ten.
After the first month of classes, we started getting back the stories. One woman, whom we had taken on pro-bono, came back to tell us that the class had made her feel so good about herself that she decided to stop being a prostitute and organize the women of her pueblo to start baking— and selling— cakes to the local market. Another woman told us that she decided to kick out the man who’d been abusing her, and her kids, for five years.
It became clear that we weren’t just teaching cooking, this was about empowerment. So when the restaurant shuttered, my parents formed a non-profit called Through The Kitchen Door, which they brought back to the states. This non-profit runs healthy cooking classes in urban neighborhoods in the DC area. Most of the trainees are recently-emigrated women but we also do a lot of work in after-school programs. My mother ran the organization until she passed away two years ago, and my father runs it now.
I believe that food is an international language. Everyone needs to eat and everyone wants to eat well. It’s important to learn how to cook. Seriously— you’ll know what’s in your meals, plus you’ll be happier. And who knows what else you’ll learn?