On the first day of cooking camp in East Helena, students were learning how to make a simple caprese salad recipe. By the end of the four-week course, they were tasked with breaking down and cooking an entire chicken.
“I was surprised at how much confidence they gained,” Micah Eller, the chef who led the camp, said. “They’re like sponges.”
The four-week cooking class, taught through the East Helena Food & Culture Hub, was one of the first programs launched with a $500,000 grant awarded last December. The grant came from ArtPlace, an organization that aims to have art and culture at the center of community planning.
Eller, the culinary training coordinator, is spearheading efforts to establish an apprenticeship program to get people trained while getting paid in a restaurant in Helena or East Helena. The hub will also look for a permanent facility to have a commissary kitchen for upcoming chefs, a community garden, cooking classes for children and adults and community events based on food.
She attended culinary school in Oregon and worked at Girl & the Goat in Chicago, and then returned to Helena to work as executive chef at The Montana Club and The Rathskeller. Now Eller is working full time at the East Helena Food & Culture Hub with a goal to help people learn nutrition, become more reliant on local food systems, learn how to make healthy food on a budget and put to rest the often repeated idea that Helena doesn’t have good restaurants.
All aspects of the East Helena Food & Culture Hub will have an emphasis on local food and culture. At the kids cooking camp, students made stuffed cabbage rolls, a Polish dish called galumpkis. They also learned how to make German spaetzle and Hungarian paprikash.
At camp, kids learned about the importance of fresh ingredients, how to waste less food, the local food systems, nutrition, safety and life skills.
“We started with a lecture on the history of the product, then the region of the cuisine,” Eller said.
Once the kids had some experience, they helped prepare dishes for a community picnic held in East Helena on July 20. The potluck picnics are an effort to bring back East Helena’s traditional community picnics.
The classes for kids will continue twice a year at no cost to children in East Helena. Cooking classes for adults, with lessons on topics like small animal butchery and knife skills, will be held every other month. Eller said she also hopes community luncheons will happen every other month.
Eller will hold demonstrations at the Helena Food Share once a month starting in September on making nutritious meals on a budget, which could include topics like how to cook a certain food, growing your own garden and relying more heavily on local foods to cut down on costs.
It’s possible to eat healthy and fresh foods even if you don’t have a lot of money to spend on groceries, Eller explained. Buying seasonal fruits and vegetables that didn’t have to travel far and beans or grains in bulk can help people save money. Eller said people can also benefit from being educated consumers by learning the difference between healthy products and an expensive food trend or fad diet.
“There’s always going to be people trying to sell you things,” she said.
The East Helena Food & Culture Hub is working on finding a space for a commissary kitchen and will launch an apprenticeship program in partnership with the state to help workers get trained in well-paid jobs and provide kitchens with reliable employees.
A commissary kitchen would provide space for people preparing dishes for food trucks or the farmers market. It would also give budding chefs a place to try out new concepts.
“There’s a lot of young chefs in this town that could benefit from a space,” she said.
Eller said she often hears that Helena doesn’t have a lot of restaurant options, and restaurants that are struggling say they’ve had a hard time finding workers.
“It is difficult to find people who are trained up,” she said. “And Montana has never really been a food state. It’s still developing that culture beyond huckleberries and bison.”
In Helena, people who are interested in opening a restaurant often can’t afford a liquor license or find an available one. And because restaurants generally aren’t moneymakers without liquor sales, Eller said it can be a deal breaker.
While some of those issues are outside of the hub’s control, Eller wants people to understand the difficulties of operating a restaurant in Helena or East Helena and help them navigate the options they do have, whether it’s eating out or cooking at home. The apprenticeship program will work to make existing restaurants better and possibly encourage new places to open up with the promise of a training program for employees.
The apprenticeship program will connect with chefs at local restaurants to understand the issues they’re having with workers and what skills are missing. The program will also look at helping people who want jobs find more affordable childcare options and look for solutions for a lack of transportation.
Eller said it’s also important for consumers to give restaurants feedback and try the places that are open.
“We need people to support the places they want to see stick around,” she said.