Last week I got a series of packages at my home in Las Vegas. Each one of them was filled with chef coats of various sizes, like the ones worn in this picture.
When the FedEx truck pulled up, I could hardly contain my excitement. My wife Chelle thought I was nuts as I opened the door even before the driver was out of the truck. But I couldn’t help it. Those coats represented hope.
Hope in Oaxaca.
Oaxaca is home to a majority of the 50 poorest towns in Mexico. Places like San Pedro Amatlán, San Jose del Paso and Eloxochitlán. My foundation, Adventures in Life has worked in towns like these for years in Oaxaca. They are places where economic activity hardly exists.
We’ve helped provide school supplies, set up small greenhouse where people can grown their own vegetables and provide agricultural training. Working with local medical professionals, each year we hold a series of medical and dental clinics across the Central Valley and in the Sierra Mazateca.
Additionally, in response to unprecedented violence last December 14th in Eloxochitlán, Oaxaca, we responded in a big way. By organizing a huge network of small donors, we were able to put every single business that was destroyed that day back in business, helping support the struggling economy of that area.
This is help that makes a difference. It is help that brings hope.
Years ago I asked a group of kids in a small village, all about ten years old, what they wanted to be when they grew up. It’s a question we frequently ask kids in the United States. When I was young the answers were things like teachers, firemen, nurses and maybe a baseball player. Here’s what’s sad. Not a one of those kids, boys or girls, could answer the question. “Davíd” they told me, “We have to go your country for a job, porque no hay trabajos aqui.” Then they explained, “There is no way we can have a job or a family in Oaxaca. There is no hope.”
Take a moment and think about that. 10 year olds who know that they are growing up in a world of no hope. I’ve returned to that moment many times over the years as I have served in Oaxaca. A few years ago I decided my foundation, Adventures in Life needed to try and do something about that.
In early 2012 I started thinking. What if we could help kids catch a vision for something more. Something that might give them hope and encourage them. It seemed to come together that Fall at the Annual Taste of Mexico event at St Vibiana’s in Los Angeles. There, in the presence of the Mexican food royalty of Los Angeles, it hit me.
Food. Comida. Gastronomy!
What if that vision included a culinary institute, a place where kids from around Oaxaca, regardless of their faith and beliefs, could come, learn and begin the process of developing a passion for food? And from there, maybe go one to career in the restaurant industry.
I asked my friend Bricia Lopez of Guelaguetza Restaurant in Los Angeles if she would give us Guelaguetza chef coats for a group of kids in Oaxaca. When she said yes, I swallowed hard and then asked her if she would connect us to a chef in Oaxaca where the kids could go, take a tour and be inspired.
She again said yes and soon our kids were sitting with Chef Rodolo Castellanos of Origen Restaurant in Oaxaca as he shared his story. The kids eyes never moved as he told about growing up poor, like them, with his brothers in Ocotlán and selling bolis, a Mexican style Otter Pop to help his family raise money to eat.
When he finished, he gave them a tour of his soon to open new restaurant. And then he told them to wash their hands, and get ready to cook. The kids, some of whom had never in their life left their home villages, were stunned. What an opportunity for the boys and girls that came to our camp that year.
This year, building on that success, our kids will get a day cooking with Chef Pilar Cabrera of La Olla Restaurant and Casa de los Sabores in Oaxaca. I known her for a few years, have cooked in her home as part of my work writing about travel and food in Mexico, and count her as a friend, both on Facebook and more importantly, personally. She is very excited to be coming to our ranch to cook with our young chefs and provide a very special meal for all of our kids that will be there this year.
But Pilar will not be working alone.
We’ve also got Chef Jose Lim. Normally he can be found around the Los Angeles area promoting the Belgian Chocolatier Callebaut. Before that, he was an instructor for Le Cordon Bleu, the internationally known cooking school from France, for 10 years. He’s going to mostly be teaching about desserts but will also be helping kids hone their savory cooking skills.
The reason we do this is because Oaxaca is one of the hubs of the Mexican gastronomic world. And if the kids with whom we work can get excited about working with some of the best chefs in the area, maybe one day they’ll be able to a good job in this, one of the poorest states in Oaxaca.
Our week however is not just about food. We’ll also be teaching photography. Joe Ramirez of Mission Focused, who shoots most of the photos for Dave Miller’s Mexico, will be sharing his skills with the kids.
Something most folks from the US don’t get is this… every village needs photographers to document life, just as in the US. Weddings, funerals, births,quinceañeras and everything in between has to photographed. That means if you can shoot, and shoot well, you’ve got a job. So if you happen to be in Oaxaca City this coming Wednesday and see a group of kids taking pictures, give ‘em a smile, because they’re part of our group!
In just a few days, more than 40 kids will be showing up at our ranch. When word started getting out that we had classes in culinary arts, photography and even agriculture, we quickly filled up.
And more want to come.
I’m not sure where will put them, or how we’ll handle to numbers in our classes, but I do know this… there is no way we are going to say no to hope here in Oaxaca!