Virtual club for teen chefs launches in four N.W.T. communities

After a culinary program in British Columbia became a hit among teenagers, the Northwest Territories has decided to introduce one of its own.

B.C.-based food business coach Mandi Lunan co-founded the Kootenay Teen Chef Club four years ago, in partnership with the Trail and District Chamber of Commerce and a local farmers' market. The club helps participants aged 12 to 18 prepare meals of their choice and interact with other young chefs online.

"We were actually just having a conversation and [Lunan] was telling me what she was doing, and it was like, oh, well – let's see if we can do that here," said

The Territorial Agrifood Association's Janet Dean said Lunan was telling her about the B.C. project when she realized a similar club could be tried in the N.W.T.

"It was the same thing – these kids from around the region didn't have access to each other or didn't know about fresh local food," said Dean.

"She wanted to encourage that and had great success the first year, and said maybe there's something to this."

N.W.T. Teen Chef Club has now secured funding for a first season that will run through this summer until September.

According to the Department of Health and Social Services, the N.W.T. version is a "mostly self-guided club" modelled after the Kootenay program. It will run in parallel with farmers' markets in Yellowknife, Fort Smith, Hay River and at the Inuvik Community Greenhouse.

Andrew Wind, a spokesperson for the department, said the GNWT had given the Territorial Agrifood Association $35,000 to support the program, a portion of which will go toward the salary for a project manager and staff time for each participating farmers’ market.

"The aim is to introduce teens to their locally produced produce and facilitate their understanding, awareness and interest in local food systems, culinary entrepreneurship, food science, culinary arts and agriculture," Wind said in an email on Thursday.

Each month, Dean said, program coordinator Linnea Azzolini will work with Lunan to establish a theme. Participants then decide which recipes they want to prepare based on the availability of produce and other resources at the local markets.

"They'll get a voucher for the farmers' market in Yellowknife, or they'll get a voucher for the greenhouse in Inuvik. Then we also give them a gift card for the grocery store in their location, if they need anything extra to be able to make it something special," she added.

The chefs get a month to prepare each meal. Dean said that timeline is designed to ensure youth have a flexible schedule to turn in their dishes.

In the process, participants will document the journey by making a video or taking photographs.

Virtual training sessions and regular meetings with the B.C. team are available to the chefs.

Next year, the group will move to a second level with "more complicated scenes and more unusual ingredients," said Dean.

"One of the things Mandi has said is she finds that sometimes [participants] will get so inspired, they'll do a dish a week. We kind of hope they'll do that because that means they're taking on family cooking responsibility, but we don't want to put pressure on them."

Though applications for Yellowknife are now closed, the application window for Inuvik, Fort Smith and Hay River is open until the communities reach at least 10 participants. As of Thursday afternoon, TAA has received 20 applications.

Coordinator Azzolini, born and raised in Yellowknife, is working toward a degree in environmental studies with a minor in Indigenous studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. She has returned to the city for a second year as a summer student to assist her professor with research on northern food sustainability.

"I really like it so far. Honestly, it's great being able to interact with the community as well as much younger youth," she said.

Azzolini admits the virtual concept of the program can sometimes be challenging for people to grasp.

While the team hasn't received any requests from residents to accommodate unreliable internet or other technical barriers that may arise during calls, she said resources are available to facilitate easier communication.

Each participant receives a goody bag of items like rice, chickpeas, salt and pepper, pasta, diced tomatoes, olive oil, onion powder, garlic powder and thyme.

"A lot of the parents are excited to have their kids involved with cooking, and the kids are really excited to get to learn how to cook in such a fun and collaborative way, then be able to showcase their cooking to an audience," said Azzolini.

"It also helps bridge the gap for some low-income families that would love to partake in the club but can't afford to buy those non perishables. They'll be able to use those throughout the summer, as well as the vouchers we give them each week to buy the fresh ingredients."

Dean hopes the program can become a means for youth to express their creativity in the kitchen.

"The other thing I hope they take out of it is an understanding of different ingredients than just the ingredients they were raised on ... we're trying to get people to eat local," she said.

"A program like this lets the kids get a little bit creative because in their parents' time, we didn't have backyard gardens up here. There wasn't a lot of them. So this is a chance for them to see what's going on and try maybe bok choy, because their parents aren't buying that at the grocery store but they can pick it up at the farmers' market – just realize that local food can still be really good, interesting and tasty."

To learn more about the N.W.T. Teen Chef Club and how to apply for it, you can email Linnea Azzolini.

Aastha Sethi, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio