By Summer Wong
As 6:30 arrived, eight eager students laid down their bags, washed their hands, rolled up their sleeves, and each snatched a chalk white apron hanging from the coat rack in the corner. They crowded around the kitchen counter as their instructor, Chef Jessica VanRoo, expertly demonstrated several culinary techniques, such as preparing yeast and sauteing chicken. She effortlessly took two frying pans and whipped the sizzling chicken up and down above the hot stove while her students stared at her in complete mesmerization.
As the night of magic went on, the air became rich with the intoxicating scent of homemade pita, crispy falafels with Tahini sauce, chicken gyro bowls with white garlic sauce, and individual baklava. The smell attracted people from other parts of the gym as they crowded outside the door of the kitchen in hopes to find out the source of the heavenly aroma.
The kitchen at the Anteater Recreation Center was a haven for individuals hungry to explore their culinary passions, taking a break from their daily lives to engage in the culinary arts. Cooking a meal — with a complicated structure, a variety of ingredients, and a curious heart — is an expression of personality and culture; a far cry from what one could reheat in a microwave or order in a to-go box. Chef VanRoo knows this, and it’s become the main reason for her motivation in teaching.
With a warm and bubbly personality, she spoke with each of her students, creating an atmosphere of zero judgment and a welcoming charisma. With the help of three student staffers and a cameraman to record her performance displayed on the TV screens atop the kitchen counter, Chef VanRoo was armed with a strong team for her class.
Cooking was the medium in which students from all walks of life got to bond and form meaningful relationships. With the recipe clutched in their hands and the various ingredients laid out on the table, each of the students worked together to produce a culinary art made entirely from their own hands.
Chef VanRoo articulated on the many beginner cooks she’s met in her time working here, “I love the people that come through here. Every year I get a new set of students, a mix of cultures and ages and people. They want to learn more about the culture, and what is behind the food. They’re always asking ‘why.’ ‘why,’ ‘why.’”
Chef VanRoo has been cooking since her childhood. Growing up in Taiwan for eighteen years, she’s always known that she had an irresistible curiosity about different cultures. And for her, the kitchen was the perfect way to further showcase her appreciation for different cultures through her cooking. From Chinese food to authentic Greek cuisine, Chef VanRoo is well rounded in her knowledge of native dishes from various cultures. After attending culinary school, she was eventually given an opportunity to work in Newport beach to teach kids how to cook.
“That was the first step of getting my foot in the door,” she said.
From there, Chef VanRoo eventually expanded her horizons by starting her own business with in-home dinner catering before coming to the Anteater Recreation Center.
“I find it very fun and intriguing to see someone who thinks they can’t make something, make something. That experience is the most rewarding.”