The new commercial kitchen at the Free Library of Philadelphia is, by far, the most beautiful, tricked-out kitchen in which I've ever cooked.
We made lovely meals in the simple convent kitchen at St. Martin de Porres in North Philadelphia when the after-school cooking program began in 2012, and then in the public school cafeteria kitchens the following fall and spring.
As the program grew over the last two years, with volunteers cooking in schools in Philadelphia and Camden, some classes made feasts with just an electric frying pan.
The point is, you don't need a high-end kitchen and fancy equipment to cook a nice dinner. But when the library built a gorgeous kitchen on its top floor for demonstrations and events, I thought, why shouldn't the kids in the neighborhood learn to cook healthy meals in it?
Liz Fitzgerald, the literary culinary specialist there, couldn't have been more gracious for our first class, offering not only her expertise but also an enviable supply of equipment: pots and pans of every size, bins of vegetable peelers, spatulas, graters, chef's knives, paring knives, measuring cups, whisks, anything we could imagine.
"Aprons?" I asked. "Of course," she said, procuring a handful of snappy red ones.
Aelyn Estevez, 17, arrived right on time, after her day at Ben Franklin High, where she is a senior in the culinary arts program. She's one of five culinary students participating in My Daughter's Kitchen this fall.
Tuna melts and zucchini fries were on the menu, and we got busy unpacking all the groceries and laying out cutting boards with knives at the ready.
The only thing missing was the students! They were walking over from Russell Byers Charter School, and the clock was ticking toward 30 minutes past the start time.
"We're here," announced Dennis Morrison-Wesley 3d, as he marched through the doors and into the kitchen. "What are we cooking?"
As I told him, his face fell. "I'm allergic to fish," the 10-year-old said.
But Liz was quick with a solution: "We have enough cans of beans to last through the apocalypse," she said. She suggested replacing tuna with mashed beans. Dennis was content, and we were off.
After explaining basic rules, washing hands with soap and hot water, we started dividing up jobs, and I asked the kids the kinds of things they liked to eat, and if they cooked at home.
"All I make at home is noodles and French toast and cereal," said Samiek Miller, 11. "In the microwave."
"That's not really cooking," I told them. "Do you know how to make French toast on the stove, with eggs and bread?"
They looked confused.
And it reinforced exactly why I started these cooking classes: We have so many kids growing up on prepared foods - frozen and boxed convenience foods full of preservatives and extra calories - when making it from scratch is so simple.
There may be a packaged version of tuna melts, I told them, but these are so simple you could even make them in a toaster oven.
But as usual, what seemed like the simplest of recipes for our first week - tuna fish salad with olive oil, basil and lemon instead of mayo - spread on English muffins topped with cheese; and zucchini slices coated in bread crumbs - were quite complicated for beginning cooks. Especially when it became clear many of these kids had never held a knife.
We tried to show them how to curve their fingers so if the knife slips or gets too close it hits your fingernail and not your finger. Even slicing the muffins proved challenging - but they soldiered on.
I demonstrated how to cut the ends off the zucchini, cut off the skin, and cut it into fries. Liz suggested cutting it in half to make it more manageable for the inexperienced hands.
But Dennis was having none of it: "I want to do it just like you did," he insisted. He struggled with the grater as we started on shredding the cheese, and Liz went again to those magic cabinets and brought a different grater - on which he promptly scraped his finger. A Band-Aid and a blue rubber glove were procured. And Dennis chose to move on to table setting.
"All chefs cut themselves and burn themselves at some point," I told him. "It happens. It teaches you to be more careful. It's not fatal."
Aelyn did a beautiful job demonstrating how to whisk an egg white, showing Kaylah Nobron, 10, how to pick up the bowl and tilt it, to really put some power into it.
It took forever to get all those zucchini fries dipped in egg white and coated with the mixture of bread crumbs, grated Parmesan, and paprika.
And then there was another glitch: A catered event elsewhere in the library required the use of a couple of burners and an oven. But we had more than enough to share.
As always, it all came together. The kids devoured the tuna melts (Dennis made fast work of his bean mash melt), and all wanted to take home the extras we had made.
The zucchini fries were also a hit with everyone but Dennis, who thought they were too sweet.
But I knew the class was a success as I heard the kids chatting as they were packing up to go.
"Cooking excites me," said Kaylah.
"I loved everything," said Samiek. "My mom-mom made zucchini fries, but I never tried them. I really like them. . . . This is the best after-school class ever!"