Kingston, NY (April 22, 2020) – It’s Friday, going on 5 pm, and Cam, 15, Gabe, 12, Raymond, 14, and Stephen, 17, are in their kitchens – some with their moms — making chicken parmesan. With every step, they turn to their laptops or phones, where Zach Berger instructs and cooks along with them. Zach is their Advocate with Ulster County, NY Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. a community/family-based alternative to youth incarceration and other out-of-home placements.
YAP Advocates provide a unique form of intensive, individualized mentoring that helps youth who face complex challenges identify their strengths and pursue positive paths to use them. Simultaneously, the Advocates work with each youth’s parents/guardians to connect them with tools and resources to firm their family’s foundation.
Zach, 31, created the virtual cooking class when the COVID-19 pandemic forced him and his fellow Ulster County, NY YAP Advocates to work with their leadership to develop teleservices to keep youth on track with their individualized service plans.
“We were struggling to come up with ideas at first,” said YAP Assistant Director Jenilee Pollan.
A part-time YAP Advocate, Zach is building a business as a private chef and caterer. It’s work that has all but disappeared with the onset of the pandemic.
“When we were brainstorming, I remember saying to Zach, ‘You cook. Why not cook virtually?”
Prior to the pandemic, as part of his work as an Advocate, Zach had been teaching cooking classes at the YAP office.
“We kind of got lucky, said YAP Program Director Hannah Calhoun. “Zach loves teaching and he’s great with the young people. He also likes to experiment. His creative food side has been extremely helpful and very useful.”
A year into his nearly five years with YAP, Zach took time off to go to Peru, where he co-owned a restaurant featuring all things local – building materials, fruits, vegetables and meats. His passion for sustainable dining started during his senior year in high school when he earned college credits in an environmental science program. He continued his studies at Tompkins Cortland Community College in Dryden, NY.
Zach encourages YAP program participants to believe in, focus on and use accessible tools to achieve their goals. He shares stories with them about his travels throughout South America — the Amazon — and stops along the way. He tells the young people that he’s been to 26 countries and plans to visit many more. But he also talks to them about difficulties and hard work — busing and waiting tables — and he’s open about setbacks, like healing from a painful breakup and battling depression.
Initially, the YAP team envisioned Zach’s classes as a youth group activity. But organically, they became more of a family affair.
“At first it was more because I needed their parents there for supervision,” Zach said. “I was doing cooking classes once or twice a month in the office with just the kids. Turns out it was even better when everybody had a kitchen and families were able to work together.”
There have, however, been some hiccups.
“I’d have to say the first day, it went bad.,” Zach said.
For some parents, turning the kitchen over to their children, especially considering their sons’ track records of getting into trouble, was a challenge.
“I called them after that class and said we need the youth to build the skill. I told them we want parents involved, but they have to trust their children; to give them this moment to learn,” Zach said. “For the most part, it’s working out naturally now; they’re doing this together and they’re smiling.”
A few days before each class, Advocates let the families know what they’ll be preparing. Zach works to use recipes that include ingredients the families likely already have. The team goes to a local food pantry and gathers the additional ingredients. Zach and the other Advocates drop the items off at the families’ homes in time for each classs.
For the chicken parmesan, there were two video classes, Wednesday’s, where the YAP participants made their sauce, and Friday’s session, where they cooked the chicken and pasta that completed the meal.
Shortly after Friday’s Zoom class began, Zach reminded everyone to wash their hands – at least 20 seconds – with soap and water.
Then the lesson began. He told his students to separate their chicken cutlets from their containers of flour and breadcrumbs and said they’ll need two or three eggs.
When Gabe said he didn’t have eggs, Zach (who is also a guitarist), told him how to improvise.
Raymond, who was not on camera but following along using audio, mentioned that things didn’t go so well earlier in the week when he accidentally burned his sauce.
Zach encouraged him, letting him know every chef burns food, especially early on when they’re learning. At the same time, he patiently demonstrated how to dip the chicken into the egg, then the flour, back into the egg and then the breadcrumbs.
Throughout the class, Zach took time to answer questions.
“How much oil in the frying pan?” “What’s the boiled water for again?”
The moms worked hard not to hover but were actively involved. For a few minutes, a dad joined, too.
“Is it cool — spending time like this with your moms?” The answers came in quick nods, slight smiles, and from each young chef, a quiet, “yes.”
Zach told the youths that his love for cooking started in his childhood kitchen where he prepared meals with his mom and dad.
“it’s good,” said Stephen’s mom. “Everyone has to be a team,” Cam’s mom added. “He’s in charge of the egg and flour; I’m in charge of the breadcrumbs.”
As the chicken went into the ovens, Zach showed his trainees a type of pesto made from a locally grown vegetable. When no one guessed the name of it, he told them it’s ramps, a regional plant that grows for a short time and tastes like garlic. Zach topped off his dish with the ramps, and like any celebrity chef, turned his perfectly plated dish towards the camera.
The boys took their turns, proudly showing off their’s too. Everyone agreed that it was all pretty impressive. The young men were proud, not just of what they’d prepared for dinner, but of how they felt knowing that they’re also preparing for their futures.
“I usually do outside work, change oil and tires and mow the lawn,” said Stephen “This is a trade that can benefit me in the future.” He turned to his mother and smiled. “It makes me realize what she does — how hard she works in the kitchen for us.”
“I get to do things with other people and socialize and learn new stuff too. And I love it,” Cam said.
‘It’s wonderful. It brings families
together. It’s inspiring to see moms who are often in conflict with their sons work so well with them, positively, to make a meal,” said Jenilee.