Ashlyn Barbieri loves to cook.
She’s been at it since the age of 9, has taken classes at the Davis Food Co-op and one summer a couple of years back, set and accomplished the goal of making 50 different recipes for her family.
Now, the 16-year-old Davis High School junior is sharing her passion with a group of sixth-graders from Montgomery Elementary School. For the past two months, Barbieri met with students weekly after school to teach them how to make healthy — and relatively simple — meals and snacks.
They made spinach smoothies, oatmeal pancakes, muffin-tin pizzas, turkey roll-ups and much more.
“They all seemed to like it,” Barbieri said. “And they all love the idea of cooking.”
Barbieri is a lifelong Girl Scout who had already earned her Bronze and Silver awards doing community service projects. She decided for her Gold Award — the highest award a Girl Scout can earn — she would try to combine her two favorite things: working with kids and, of course, cooking.
“I decided I wanted to teach them how to cook and new ways to eat,” she said, meaning an emphasis on less sugar and more fruits and vegetables, but all of it still tasty.
Barbieri approached Sally Plicka, the principal at Montgomery — where she herself had attended elementary school — and Plicka recommended that she work with students who meet after school every day in the Davis Bridge Program.
Barbieri decided sixth-graders would be perfect because they would be heading off to junior high soon and would need to be a little more independent.
“They’re going to need to start taking care of themselves,” she explained.
Once she had her audience set, Barbieri set about raising money to make the project happen. She spent time at the Farmers Market sharing her plan and seeking donations and managed to raise $130 that way. She received another $100 from the Girl Scout Council.
Last summer, she started planning her recipe collection.
At the same time, she was working with the city of Davis’ Community Services Department as a summer playground leader, which is where she had discovered she loved working with children as much as she did cooking.
So it was no surprise when she started cooking with kids at Montgomery that she was having as much fun as they were.
“I’m really enjoying this,” she said one recent afternoon as she got ready for the kids in the multipurpose room kitchen at Montgomery.
On the menu that day were two dishes: Japanese okonomiyaki and Chinese spaghetti and meatballs.
Barbieri had done her shopping over the weekend and arrived early to set everything out and get the pasta boiling. Once the students arrived, they would be making the meatballs, mixing the ingredients and taking turns cooking everything.
Barbieri was confident the students would like the final products, as she hadn’t really gone wrong yet.
“There will be some stuff some kids won’t like, and that’s life,” she said.
But even some recipes that kids didn’t think they’d like — such as spinach smoothies — were hits.
“They all seemed to like that,” Barbieri said.
And the mere act of being in the kitchen seems to make them happy, too, she said.
“Some are like, ‘Yay, it’s that time of week when I get to cook again,’ ” Barbieri said.
Many of them continue cooking at home as well.
They each leave class every week with copies of the recipes they’ve made and many report back to Barbieri that they’ve prepared the dishes for family members.
“I like that you can take new stuff and show your family what you learned,” said Maritza Vazquez, 12. “I made the omelette for my dad.”
“(Barbieri) is a good teacher,” Maritza added. “I learned a lot from her.”
The kids also appreciate the variety of recipes they’ve learned how to make.
“It’s pretty cool we get to try food from different countries,” said Dounia Mahdi, 11. “That’s what I like, like making Chinese food.”
Dounia and Maritza were among a dozen students working in the kitchen with Barbieri one recent Thursday. The sixth-graders in the Bridge program have been split into two cooking groups with half spending time with Barbieri on Tuesdays and the other half on Thursdays.
It is a lot of work — and hours — for Barbieri, who not only shops in advance for all the ingredients but also does a lot of prep work at home, including chopping vegetables.
Then she arrives at Montgomery a half-hour or more before the students show up in order to get the kitchen ready for them.
When the kids do arrive, Barbieri asks, “What’s the first step in cooking?”
“Wash hands,” they reply in unison.
Washing in general is a particular favorite in this kitchen with its industrial power-washer for dishes. Luckily for Barbieri, that means no shortage of helpers when it comes to cleanup.
On this day, the recipes proved a big hit, with every last bit of food devoured by the kids before they headed back to the Bridge program.
“It’s good!” was the general consensus.
They depart with their tummies full and new recipes in hand, already looking forward to their next visit to the kitchen with Barbieri.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy