For the last 18 years, Christina Crawford of Princeton has enjoyed a successful, highly rewarding career as a cooking instructor and caterer. Until 2012 she was chef-owner of Wooden Spoon Catering Company, in the Princeton North shopping center in Rocky Hill.
There, she used the commercial kitchen not only to prepare fare for her loyal clientele, but also turned the place into a de facto incubator for at least five other woman-owned food businesses. Among them is Jen Carson’s LilliPies, which is slated to move into the Princeton Shopping Center this spring.
For the last three years, Crawford has taught classes at the culinary center inside West Windsor’s Whole Foods Market, until that center closed up shop last fall. A few weeks ago, Crawford was named manager of the gleaming new teaching kitchen that’s part of HomeFront’s Family Campus in Ewing, near the Trenton-Mercer Airport.
“This job is a thousand times better than anything I could have thought about doing,” she says, standing in the middle of the large, cheerful space where, among other duties, she teaches basic cooking lessons to HomeFront’s clients: Mercer County families that are fighting homelessness. Last year alone the Lawrence-based organization answered 16,000 calls for help, providing shelter, food, and educational and employment assistance to many of the county’s estimated 1,800 homeless people, many of them families with children. (The age of the average HomeFront client is seven year years old.) September saw the grand opening of their 42,000-square foot facility on what was a decommissioned naval base off Scotch Road, of which the teaching kitchen is part.
The kitchen is currently used for three or four classes a week, each focused on how to cook nutritious, convenient, low-budget meals, but the program is expanding. In addition to Chris Crawford, there are six volunteer cooking teachers, many of them chefs or caterers. “Kids are my favorite students,” admits Crawford, whose appearance and bubbly energy belie her 63 years. Some have been as young as five, and she never knows in advance how many kids will show up or what their ages will be.
Constant turnover, she says, is a good thing: it means that Homefront clients are moving on. “But,” she admits, “I’m always having to pull a rabbit out of my hat. The lessons have to address a spectrum of skill and attention levels.” For one recent class she intended to make tacos, but came across tortilla chips in the pantry and switched to nachos instead.
“These classes are billed as ‘healthy kids,’ so it was all vegetarian. We used little fat; we had black beans. I let them cut up onions, heat the beans, etc.” While the focus is usually on whole and wholesome ingredients, at Christmastime the class made cookies with sprinkles and piles of icing. “I totally bailed!” she says, laughing. “But it was fun, and they really enjoyed them.”
Making the most of on-hand ingredients is a hallmark. Last fall, a volunteer for HomeFront’s ArtSpace program donated a load of apples from her own orchard. “We wound up making everything from applesauce to hand pies,” Crawford says. “It’s important that the kids feel ownership for whatever it is they make. Some of the children have never eaten the vegetables I use. My rule here is the same as it was when I taught at Whole Foods: they have them try it. They can then tell me they don’t like it, that’s OK. But most are pretty open to it.”
Even with adult students, she says, “I’m not teaching gourmet. I’m teaching tasty and I’m teaching basic skill level.” Some of these students are residents of HomeFront’s new Huchet House on campus, which provides services for up to nine live-in, first-time expectant mothers at a time. Besides prenatal care, parenting classes, and education and job training, their program focuses on life skills like budgeting and cooking.
One of the volunteer cooking teachers, Delphine Brinkman-Salzado of Princeton, teaches a popular adult class that focuses on making tasty, healthy meals on a tight budget. Liza Peck, special projects coordinator for the Family Campus, says, “Delphine talks about literal prices of things; she’ll tell you how much everything costs in the cart, how much a particular meal costs to make, how much you have leftover and what you can make with what’s leftover.”
One of the chalkboards hung about the room’s orange and sunshine-yellow walls displayed such figures for a recent dish that comprised tuna, yogurt, eggs, onion, cilantro, capers, peppers and cream. The bottom line: $16 in the cart and $7 per serving. In a holiday class for a group of residents in a Family Campus facility that accommodates families with men, Brinkman-Salzado made a simple lava cake. Liza Peck recalls one fellow’s reaction: “This guy said, ‘I’m totally going to impress my kids by making this cake. And I can make it for less than what a bag of chips cost!’ How great is that?”
Everyone involved with the kitchen agrees that the kitchen is about much more than teaching recipes or kitchen skills. Another chalkboard lists a litany of what else goes on in any kitchen where families gather. “Meals are served” it proclaims, but also: “Families are savored, dreams are flavored, teamwork happens, families evolve, cravings are silenced.”
Liza Peck sees the myriad benefits of cooking and eating together all the time. “Take for example the Huchet House class. It’s very small,” she says. “These nine women get to sit down together over lunch and talk. It fosters social skills over food. The instructor takes time to set the table with placemats, cloth napkins, and real china so it’s aesthetically pleasing as well.”
The state-of-the-art kitchen, which is approximately 30-by-30 feet, sports six workstations around its perimeter, each outfitted with home-grade stainless steel appliances, including either a gas and or electric range because HomeFront clients may encounter either when they move on. Gray tile backsplashes and gray and white countertops complement the stainless steel. A teaching station with overhead mirror faces a group of café tables and chairs in the center of the room. These can be reconfigured to make one big dining table. A commercial sink at one end is for washing, rinsing, and sanitizing.
The teaching kitchen was the vision of HomeFront volunteer June Pecora. “You’ll notice we have very basic equipment: no blenders, no food processors,” she says of the facility that she designed and the program she brought to fruition. Her involvement with HomeFront began about 10 years ago, but about 6 years ago she told herself that she needed to “do something beyond dropping off clothes and writing a check.”
But she didn’t know what, so she sat down for coffee with HomeFront founder Connie Mercer and Celia Bernstein, who at the time was the head of development and who is now CEO. “Celia asked me to name what I enjoy, what I am passionate about. I said cooking,” recalls Pecora, from Princeton, who is an avid home cook and who enjoys dining out. As a loyal customer, she had become good friends with Mario Mangone, owner-chef of Chambers Walk Café in Lawrenceville.
“So I got with my friend Mario, who has a big heart. I asked if he would let me use his restaurant’s kitchen to conduct a class on how to make healthy, very low budget, convenient meals for the week. It took off,” she says.
After Pecora was tapped to design the HomeFront kitchen, she, Mangone, and sometimes Connie Mercer crisscrossed the state visiting other teaching kitchens, among them Chris Crawford’s at Whole Foods. Recalls Crawford, “One day June and Connie came to do their due diligence and then, when the kitchen got closer to opening, June sent out an email to all of us at the kitchens she had visited asking if we’d be willing to conduct classes.” Crawford, still at Whole Foods, offered to be a substitute instructor.
Pecora’s design objective was for the kitchen to be warm and inviting, but not intimidating. “Something the Homefront clients could strive for, that they could envision being their own kitchen someday,” she explains. Everything but the countertops was purchased at Lowe’s. To stock the cabinets with pots, pans, dinnerware and other kitchen furnishings, Pecora hooked up with the folks at Ace Hardware in Princeton, who gave a 20 percent discount to anyone who purchased items on HomeFront’s behalf from a posted “shower” list.
The kitchen was stocked in less than a month. At the grand opening of the Family Campus last September, Pecora reports, “Women came in and cried! One said, ‘I don’t like cooking but I’ll cook here!’” For Pecora, cooking “builds self-esteem and confidence and helps families nurture each other just by hanging out in the kitchen.”
Pecora, Crawford, and everyone involved with the teaching kitchen see that happen every day. They tell the story of one young boy, at 11 the oldest of five siblings whose mother is 25 years old. He and his family moved in in November.
“The children had not yet been in school this year,” Liza Peck says. “We got them into school, but this little boy got suspended two times within the first week.” Even so, all the women agree, the boy is “a real sweetheart” and he has particularly responded to Chris Crawford and her classes. “He really wants to be my sous chef,” Crawford says, smiling. Adds Peck, “That little boy needed something like this. He feels important and empowered when he’s here and can’t wait to come back to class.”
Cooking classes have, in fact, become the most popular part of the HomeFront curriculum for both adults and children, Peck reports. “We are so lucky to have amazing chefs like Christina,” she says. “If you cook with love, it shows.”
Crawford, for her part, declares, “I’m not a solo act. There are a lot of people who bring their energy and love to this. Everyone who hears about it volunteers to get involved.”
Among recent volunteers is a woman who became a fan of Crawford’s Whole Foods classes. “She’s coming in to help out next week, and that extra set of hands will allow us to make minestrone and breadsticks,” she says. Another volunteer in the wings is Marilyn Besner, chef-owner of WildFlour, the gluten-free bakery and café in Lawrenceville. Besner, it turns out, was among those women whose businesses got their start at Crawford’s Wooden Spoon incubator.
To learn more about, support, or volunteer for any of HomeFront’s initiatives to end homelessness in Mercer County, including the Teaching Kitchen, visit homefrontnj.org.
Food writer and restaurant critic Pat Tanner has covered the Princeton dining scene for more than 20 years. She blogs at dinewithpat.com.