The Healing Power of Food
Teen chefs learn culinary skills, make to-go meals for those in need
By Sophia Rodriguez
On a Thursday morning, Jasper Millis kneaded dough to make onion bread knots on a metal table. Beside him, Piper Okonofua used an electric standing mixer to meld the ingredients for her double chocolate cranberry walnut cookies.
Just a few feet away, Justin Booher, who oversees the small kitchen on Johns Island, chopped the potatoes, snake gourds, squash and Japanese eggplant that would make their way into an aromatic yellow curry with lentils.
The scents wafting from the stovetop and oven complemented each other and even though the kitchen was small, it didn’t feel cramped.
It was like the prep area at any restaurant, except these cooks are teen volunteers. And these meals won’t end up on plates at a restaurant; they will be delivered to members of the community who are going through cancer treatments or facing serious health challenges.
Welcome to Amor Healing Kitchen, a teen chef program that brings teen volunteers to a community kitchen to make meals for Lowcountry residents who are severely or terminally ill.
The menus are built around the idea of anti-inflammatory functional nutrition and local produce is donated to the kitchen. Each step of the cooking process is laced with care and compassion.
Amor Kitchen is the brainchild of Maria Kelly, a former high school teacher who saw her mother through her fight with colon cancer, often bringing her homecooked meals when she was too weak to shop and cook for herself.
“She is the one that instilled in me a love of cooking and sharing meals,” said Kelly. “It was a way I could support and connect with her through a difficult time.”
Kelly was a high school teacher in Charleston for 15 years when she discovered a nonprofit in California that used teen volunteers to prepare meals for those in need.
The concept appealed to her — it taught nutrition and culinary skills and instilled a sense of service. In 2017, she left teaching and launched Amor Kitchen early the next year.
With the help of Booher, Amor’s culinary director, Kelly gets donations of fresh, local produce from a large variety of sources for the meals.
Their biggest contributor is Charleston Parks Conservatory. The kitchen also get various vegetables from a garden at Haut Gap Middle, Fields to Families, Grow Food Carolina, Sweetgrass Garden and other local spots.
“This is better than working at a restaurant,” Booher said, gesturing to the fresh bounty on the kitchen counter. “This came out of the ground yesterday. This is the best produce I’ve ever had to work with.”
Booher eagerly tackles the challenge of finding and adapting recipes to fit Amor’s vegan-offerings model.
His creations steer clear of overly spicy dishes or hard-to-digest ingredients. The volunteer cooks also use sodium sparingly because it can irritate mouth sores that sometimes develop in chemo patients or can taste metallic after certain medical treatments.
“We encourage teens to play a role in deciding which recipes we use so that we can bring in recipes to develop a desire for knowledge and learning. The teens are encouraged to manipulate recipes into their own renditions,” Kelly said.
The student volunteers have been inspired by this firsthand experience. Jasper, 16, who volunteers every Thursday, recently ran his own pop-up event at Sightsee coffee shop that included vegan treats, and said he sold his inventory quickly. Piper, 14, says her stint with Amor has her considering the possibility of a future as a baker.
A Support System
The nonprofit generally serves between 15 and 25 clients per week. All recipients receive Amor’s delivery meals on Fridays between eight and 16 weeks in order to provide a solid support system during their challenging time.
“We serve anyone facing a major health issue as well as their caregiver,” said Kelly.
While the coronavirus has slowed Amor Healing Kitchen’s fundraisers this year, its leaders are pushing forward. Their annual Seed to Soul dinner, which typically would have been at the farm, became a home dining experience this year. Guests picked up their food with directions on how to reheat, complete with a video to show how to plate like a chef.
There are also plans for fall programming, such as online classes, a peer-to-peer fundraising event and some pop-up events.
Booher says he’s received numerous requests for a cookbook based on Amor Healing Kitchen recipes and would love to have a rough draft of it ready by year’s end.
To learn more about Amor Healing Kitchen, visit www.amorhealingkitchen.org