At a new teaching kitchen at the River Senior Center, teens will cook for seniors

They’re working on a new top-end commercial kitchen at the Russian River Senior Center this week where at-risk youth will learn cooking and culinary skills and serve lunch to seniors.

The intergenerational cooking program for seniors and teens will use the kitchen to teach young people age 16 to 24 how to prepare food, run a kitchen, wait tables and gain other culinary skills, said Tim Miller, executive director of West County Community Services, the Guerneville non-profit that operates the senior center on Armstrong Woods Road.

“Not only will the kitchen produce more and better meals for our local seniors, but it will serve as the site for Project Nourish, an intergenerational cooking program for seniors and teens, as well as a culinary job training program for local youth,” said Miller.

The new kitchen will be serving made-to-order meals through the Council on Aging’s bistro menu. Menu items will include fish tacos, chicken Caesar salad, club sandwiches and frittatas.

WCCS will also be working with its youth employment program to teach culinary skills, customer service and kitchen service. Through early August, youth will work Wednesdays and Fridays for lunch. 

“We’re looking at it from the employment training side,” said Miller. “Many of the restaurants and hotels are desperate for workers right now. These are entry-level jobs, obviously. Let’s get some trained young people from this community employed at local businesses. Transportation is always a huge issue [here], and they don’t need transportation for these jobs,” said Miller, who’d like to see “360 [year-round] job training.”

A senior center kitchen advisory committee includes Crista Luedtke, owner-chef at Guerneville’s Boon Eat & Drink, and Mike Reilly, former county supervisor and a former WCCS executive director. Some Guerneville chefs have agreed to do celebrity chef appearances.

The Sonoma County Youth Ecology Corps will work through early August with a crew of eight on a farm-to-table concept using the senior center’s garden on the property along with fresh food from Council on Aging.

Senior Center Manager Vicki Halstead said the center’s kitchen is open to the public for a nominal fee, but attendance has declined over time. Before this onsite kitchen, the lunches were delivered and warmed up rather than prepared at the senior center, said Halstead.

With the new kitchen, “it’s going to be better food, prepared here,” said Halstead. “If we get more people we can expand” to more days per week.

Earthtone Construction has been working hard to get it all done, said Halstead, who hopes the kitchen will be finished next month.

The senior center had hoped to have the kitchen ready in time for this Saturday’s Pig & Pie fundraiser at the senior center on June 23, but the barbecue will proceed on schedule. Saturday’s event includes a pig barbecue by Guerneville grill master Darryl Bushgen, a pie contest judged by local celebrities, and live music by the Thugz. Tickets, available online or at the senior center, are $15 in advance, $25 for two, or $20 at the door.