They say that language is what sets us apart from animals. But, as historian Yuval Noah Harari noted, we truly became the kings of the jungle the day we decided to put food on the fire, to cook. This killed the microbes, made our teeth and intestines smaller and our brain bigger, and sparked a revolution: we started painting on cave walls, creating art. If, as the popular advert went, there’s no party without Martini, there wouldn’t have been art without cooking, nor cooking without art and passion. All of this, along with the basic values for work and life, is what a group of young people at risk of exclusion learnt at the Villa Retiro cooking school.
The kitchen at Villa Retiro restaurant in Xerta (Tarragona) has always been full of all sorts of smells and flavours that would make you drool just thinking about them. After all, Michelin stars don’t just grow on trees and this restaurant led by brothers Fran and Quim López has had one for nearly 10 years now. But the stove tops here had never seen such excitement as they did last Friday, when Yunes, Noemí, Nieves and seven other kids had to demonstrate everything they had learnt over the past three months by preparing a top-notch spread.
Cuisine is an art and, like any art form, requires vocation. “I’ve always wanted to cook,” explains Nieves, “but I was a young mother and I couldn’t do it.” One of her classmates, Yunes, who also had to forget his dreams of being a chef, now is even thinking of opening his own place. And this is precisely the purpose of the course for kitchen and catering assistants designed by Fundació Gentis, the workplace insertion programme of the ”la Caixa” Foundation and Villa Retiro Grup: to boost young people’s employability and self-esteem and to create opportunities for those who have always known their place is in the culinary world but never had a chance to devote themselves to it professionally.
In the course, they have learnt the tasks required of kitchen assistants, as well as basic skills for work and personal life, such as teamwork, adaptability, managing emotions and responsibility. The chefs at Villa Retiro also shared their passion for the profession. “Doing something you love is key. If you can do this, time flies by,” says Edu, the chef who has been working side-by-side with the students over the past three months. “What drives me every day is cooking for others, and this is what I wanted to share with the kids.” Because, with a bit of hard work, anyone can learn to julienne vegetables, thicken a sauce with beurre manié and de-bone lamb. But there is something no one can teach you, that you either have or you don’t, and that these kids have in spades: passion for what you do. In the art of cooking, this is the only true secret ingredient.
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