Dianela Lopes always dreamed of becoming a chef. That dream encountered some obstacles, but on March 27, Lopes became chef for the preschoolers at the Alliance JCC Early Childhood Center (ECC). She said that she learned her craft by watching and cooking alongside her mom, the same way her teenage daughter Isabelle became proficient in the kitchen. Now that Lopes is busy with her new job, Isabelle regularly prepares dinner for her father, Lopes’ husband Marcelino.
When Lopes was in high school, she wasn’t content with merely cooking for family members. What she really wanted was to attend Johnson & Wales University and learn how to advance her skills to a professional level. Unfortunately, the plan had to be shelved due to financial constraints. Instead, Lopes found work as a clerk for Citizens Bank. When, 17 years later, she was laid off, she knew it was now or never. On a friend’s recommendation, she decided to apply to the Community Kitchen, a Rhode Island Community Food Bank program. Her luck changed after she impressed the interviewer, also a past Citizens employee. Lopes was accepted into the program, where she learned about nutrition and acquired useful cooking and life skills.
She credits the experience with increasing her motivation and self-esteem. Attending the classes made her realize she “could do whatever I wanted to do if I put my mind to it.” That attitude came in handy during her training period when she – along with 12 co-chefs – cooked for 500 kids daily at one of the area Boys & Girls Clubs. This way of thinking also helped when she worked at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island; the job prepared her for the duties she handles at the JCC, where she’s responsible for breakfast and lunch for 35 campers and 40 preschoolers.
While breakfast consists mostly of fruit, lunches are warm meals (every day except Thursday – field trip and sandwich day). The menu, designed by the previous chef Georgina Sarpong, is quite diverse. Lopes prepares healthy and delicious dairy meals each day. A typical lunch may consist of pizza, veggie nuggets or a pasta bar. Lopes likes to change things up by offering breakfast for lunch or a new veggie such as roasted butternut squash. Some experiments are more successful than others, but the method of trial and error has worked well enough to identify winning foods and definite no-no’s in the eyes of the children. For instance, steamed carrots and veggie burgers weren’t big hits with the preschool and camp crowd. Instead, they prefer cheddar, corn and veggie-crumbles quesadillas, macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Lopes isn’t giving up on the healthy foods that kids claim to dislike, though. She finds tricky ways to incorporate nutritious ingredients into dishes. For instance, she’s been known to puree white beans, which then hide in a recipe unnoticed. In addition to sweet yet wholesome fruit-and-veggie smoothies, Lopes suggests parents consider including chickpeas in cookie recipes, something she does for staff meetings. For kids, the desserts are even healthier. They mostly consist of a variety of fruits (grapes, blueberries, strawberries, pineapple and cantaloupe) and vanilla yogurt. To offer an enticing yet healthy dessert, Lopes often opts for parfaits, which she prepares by layering cooked blueberries and yogurt in see-through containers.
A great proponent of good nutrition, Lopes plans to introduce other vegetables to the kids’ diet. So far, the assortment includes salad, corn, peas and carrots. She’d like to add red peppers, which – Lopes says – have more vitamins than oranges. She thinks she can stand up to the challenge of teaching the children to be open to new foods since they will often enjoy certain meals at school that they won’t touch at home. A child’s mother recently stopped Lopes in a hallway to ask for her yellow rice recipe, a dish she serves along with falafel. Apparently, the woman’s daughter told her parents that that’s the only rice she will eat.
Such appreciation makes Lopes feel great about her efforts. In addition to the pleasure of seeing empty plates, she gets tremendous satisfaction out of conducting cooking classes with the kids. During the last class, the children made ice pops out of apple juice and fruit, no-bake raspberry cheesecake and fruit-filled French toast cups topped with whipped cream. Lopes also made some cupcakes, which the kids loved to decorate.
She’s looking forward to teaching more classes, tweaking the menu and putting a personal touch on the dishes.