My City Kitchen

By Tom Lagasse / Photography By Glenn Hilliard | November 29, 2017
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Chef Kashia with students Dayna Smith (left) and Danika Smith (right)

The process of cooking and preparing meals is a skill often passed down from parents to children, but what started in Chef Kashia Diaz-Cave’s kitchen a decade ago as a mother’s desire to instill a love of cooking in her two sons quickly became the inspiration for food education on a much broader level. My City Kitchen, her nonprofit organization based in Meriden, was founded on the principle that cooking expertise can enrich the lives and independence of young people in Connecticut.

As an immigrant from Trinidad, Chef Kashia wanted her sons to become proficient cooks not only so they could be self-sufficient, but also to connect them to their family heritage of food production, which was a defining feature of her youth. Her parents were exceptional cooks, and both grandfathers were food producers, one a farmer and the other a fisherman. Chef Kashia’s cooking lessons to her children quickly became popular, and as her sons’ friends became interested in joining them, her instruction began to extend beyond familial boundaries. It wasn’t long before the parents of her other young students encouraged her to expand her classroom beyond her home kitchen, and the foundation for My City Kitchen was laid.

Chef Kashia Diaz-Cave

“I wanted to create a place where the kids felt safe and at home,” Chef Kashia says. "I named it ‘My City Kitchen,’ because the kitchen belongs to wherever those kids are.” Part of what young chefs learn in her classroom is how to properly cut and prepare raw ingredients and how to cook healthy meals, but Chef Kashia’s kitchen is a social space for her students, as well. The kitchen offers them a place for shared interests and belonging in the way that a dance studio or athletic field might, creating a sense of community among her students.

My City Kitchen’s standard sessions run for five weeks and for three different age groups, but as interest in Chef Kashia’s program has grown, so has the variety of services she provides, including private family sessions and cooking classes for young mothers, as well as public cooking demonstrations at the Meriden Public Library and Meriden Senior Center. Recognizing the value of community involvement and support, Chef Kashia has also partnered with other nonprofit organizations – like the YMCA, The Boys and Girls Club of Meriden, and Beat the Street Community Center – to bring healthy cooking instruction to a greater segment of the community.

Photo 1: Chef Kashia with students Dayna Smith (left) and Danika Smith (right)
Photo 2: Chef Kashia instructs sisters Dayna Smith (left) and Danika Smith (right)

Over the decade that she has operated My City Kitchen, Chef Kashia’s work has been recognized with a number of awards, including the Lion’s Club International’s “Citizen of the Year,” The Trinibago American Association of Southern Connecticut’s “Excellence Award,” Meriden Children First’s “Children’s Champion,” Connecticut Magazine’s “40 Under 40,” and the Meriden Board of Education’s “Community Support Award.” She has also been recognized by the NASDAQ stock exchange for her work with veterans.

These awards come despite the ongoing challenges to financial sustainability that My City Kitchen and many other nonprofits face, pitting monetary constraints against her vision for the business. “My original vision was to have a for-profit business that would support My City Kitchen,” Chef Kashia explains, “but I didn’t have the backing, so I just started it. It was like putting the cart before the horse.” The experience provided her with humbling lessons about running a business and remaining true to her intent, ultimately forcing her to dismantle the administrative structure of My City Kitchen. “Everything dissolved,” she recalls, “but this gave me the opportunity to fix things. I’ve spent the last two years not in a hurry to fix things, but to do it right.” In line with that, My City Kitchen recently rebooted with a series of new partnerships.

The first of these began last December, when she found out that property manager Robert Scinto was seeking new management for a café space in Shelton, and Chef Kashia seized the opportunity to develop what is now known as MCK Gourmet. Chef Kashia believes MCK Gourmet is the for-profit vehicle needed to make My City Kitchen sustainable and propel it forward. Moreover, it helps fulfill the mission she had always envisioned for her non-profit by providing a tangible professional path for her students who are interested in the culinary arts. In fact, some of her graduates already work there.

Photo 1: Chef Kashia instructs Dayna Smith
Photo 2: Dayna Smith presents one of her dishes

Chef Kashia’s partnerships continued to expand when she was contacted by Eric Francis, co-owner of Trifecta Ecosystems. Francis’s company, which creates aquaponic systems and indoor farms, was establishing itself near My City Kitchen’s former home in Meriden. “I saw that she was looking for a new place, and I reached out,” Francis recalls. “At our future locations, we will have commercial kitchens and run programs through it, but we know what we’re good at and what we’re not. We’re not chefs, but we like to provide services around classroom programming. As entrepreneurs, Kashia and I recognized the partnership opportunity. She can help us with our farm-to-table events, and it’s synergetic for our classroom work, as well.”

Financial partnerships like these have proven to be the missing ingredient for My City Kitchen’s long-term success, and Chef Kashia feels that the business is now in a position to make good on the mission she had envisioned for it. “I want to teach teens who have a passion for culinary arts. Kids tend to get back on the streets, if they don’t have something to keep them active and focused. I want this to be an opportunity for my students to transition from a cooking program to a skilled position and, from there, even into culinary school.” For Chef Kashia’s students, it’s clear that her success has become a vehicle for their own.

My City Kitchen: 203-886-8568

Article from Edible Nutmeg at http://ediblenutmeg.ediblecommunities.com/food-thought/my-city-kitchen
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