To step into the kitchen at Edgewood is not only to simply acknowledge, honor, praise, thank, and celebrate, it is also to witness the everyday health making power of good food; to marvel at the people who do it well; and cherish the thoughtful-ness and intention and interplay between a talented and dedicated chef and team and the process of our nourishment.
Arriving in January 2021, in the middle of the pandemic “in a mask, in the fog” with twenty years cooking experience and the determination that people deserve good food, Chef Kahlilah Nelson brings her passion and creative talent to the kitchen here at Edgewood, located on the Vicente campus in San Francisco. With focus on balanced nutrition as a vital component of healing linking both physical and mental health, she relies on Pacific Rim Produce to provide quality, local, and seasonal fruits & vegetables. Her team of four consisting of Cecilia Salazar, Norma Roque, Srun Taing, and herself create three meals a day offered seven days a week on campus. For recipe ideas and core health reference, Kahlilah follows award-winning author Rebecca Wood’s book, The Whole Foods Encyclopedia, where recipes are indexed by ailment or ingredient.
Even before touring the kitchen at Edgewood, it was apparent something magical was happening there. When entering the Administration building on the Vicente campus at Edgewood, a warm aromatic greeting prompts our youth and staff to partake in something healthy. The source of the comforting aroma, a reminder of good things from the stove or oven, is a revolving menu which may include: breakfast empanadas, cinnamon buns or vegan bran muffins with dried cranberries and grated Valencia orange zest from the Central-Valley, or lunch consisting of minestrone or Pho soup, or dinner consisting of miso baked salmon and broccoli, or meatloaf and mashed papas. And then there are emails from the kitchen with enticing descriptions of food each day, inviting staff to come to the kitchen and pick-up labeled take away boxes (for now), encouraging everyone to share, and be kind.
Kahlilah’s background includes work in the kitchen for a residential rehab center in SoCal where she witnessed first-hand the benefit nutrition had on recovery. Honored to work in a place as unique and important as Edgewood, she believes a reliably good meal can change a life. She has also worked as a volunteer for many years with a youth organization called the San Francisco Skate Club where she provides healthy snacks to youth of diverse backgrounds. She learned to cook on her own at an early age with limited resources, and today uses her creativity in the kitchen to educate youth about nutrition. We are excited to announce she will be leading a cooking and nutrition class for youth and teens in the garden at Edgewood on Wednesday afternoons.
While joyfully encouraging everyone to “expand their pallet and try something new, like Kolrabi,” she offers understanding this may be difficult, especially for children and teens at Edgewood processing trauma or even facing an eating disorder. She thoughtfully and gracefully navigates this challenge with information she gains through a fifteen-question survey she created and distributes to youth at the community school and residential cottage. With the response to questions like: “What does ‘good’ food mean to you?” and “What does ‘fancy food’ mean to you?” her strategy is to learn how to reach individual needs and make food approachable by creating comfort food that looks familiar and made with fresh healthy ingredients.
She is interested in discussing food stereotypes and promoting the immediate value of eating healthy food, especially green foods which interpret the process of photosynthesis in the most direct way. When asked about push-back and the challenge of providing green foods to children, Kahlilah had this response, “I expect push back and welcome it because I support agency and recognizing that children have a right to make choices and decisions about their body is the first step in the conversation about health.” In her role she would like to reach those children and teens who have not been given access to healthy food and feels the evidence speaks for itself, when you eat green foods – you feel better.
She encourages a peaceful and inviting dining environment as part of the overall experience of food and very much looks forward to the safe re-opening of the cafeteria to welcome guests at the end of October. Her vision is to provide a healing and comfortable space for youth and staff to dine and to create a presence in the neighborhood. By engaging in the Expressive Arts program and youth advisory council, she would like to create art and a single-page newsletter offered at lunch to encourage literacy, community, and education.