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Cooking for Community

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We recently met a young man who is making a difference in his community, one meal at a time.

Nathan Russell is ten years old and a fifth grader at Willow Hill Elementary School in Traverse City, and he’s already dreaming of a life combining two growing passions: cooking and helping others.

Once or twice a month, you might find Nathan at the Traverse House Cafe.

Traverse House is a rehabilitation program in a social setting for people with mental illness.

On the day we met-up with Nathan, he was making strawberry shortcake - carefully slicing the strawberries, one by one.

Nathan says, “I kind of I just think how it’s going to turn out to be. I don’t really go, oh this is boring. I just think about how it’s going to turn out. Not how it’s going out right now.”

Nathan’s interest in cooking began earlier this year, after his mom, Martha, learned about a cooking class.

“I didn’t want to go to the cooking class by myself, so I took Nathan and that’s when he saw how to make roasted peppers,” she told us. “First he didn’t want to go, so we did and he liked it. I think he was really shocked at the difference between the raw peppers and the cooked peppers. And then we went out to eat a couple of times. And I was explaining to him that we can make food as good as this at home, so he got inspired by that. And then he came in and he seared daikon radishes, which I had never eaten, and he got to see the difference between the raw and the cooked. It really sparked him to start cooking. So then he started making dinner. And then a neighbor kid got interested as well and he started making breakfast for two of his families. And it just took off from there.”

It took off from there.

Nathan started to request items from the grocery store.

He started looking at cookbooks.

He started watching cooking shows on tv.

And he started paying attention at his favorite restaurant.

“My mom mentioned to the waiter that I wanted to be a chef someday,” he says. “So they let me come around the corner to watch them cook and ask questions. And that was nice. And after we were done eating, one of the chefs gave me his favorite knife that he had for three years. And I was like, oh.”

He’s putting that knife to good use; cooking for his family two or three times each week. For the neighbors, too. And here at traverse house a couple of times each month.

“He’ll ask for different recipes and stuff and we’ll go over them and he’ll make them at home, too,” says Chery Askwith, the Support Services Coordinator with Traverse House – she’s in charge of the kitchen.

His favorite food to prepare?

Nathan says, “Salmon.”

In addition to running the kitchen, Charyl Askwith is also a licensed social worker and as a case worker, she has helped a lot of people find direction.

And she says Nathan is on a good path.

“I think it’s awesome,” she says. “I think it’s awesome. The younger they can start, and if that’s what they’re interested in, they should go for it.”

“He’s certainly taking more responsibility now,” says Nathan’s mom, Martha. “Thinking about what other people want and need and like instead of just what he wants to eat and what he likes. Planning: what are we going to need how much time is this going to take and when am I going to cook it. And I think he’s found a really good avenue for service to others.”

For Nathan, it’s not just about cooking, but cooking for his community that he really enjoys.

“Seeing their faces kind of light up when they eat it,” he says. “I’m just really glad to see them like that. It just warms me up.”

Nathan says he hopes to continue cooking, knowing he has a lot of work to do before he’ll be called “chef”.

And he’s prepared to keep working hard – someday, maybe even cooking at his favorite restaurant in Traverse City.

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