The aromasemanating from the kitchen were almost impossible to ignore.
Kris Kanev had longed for a spot in the local Police Activities League culinary arts program, but the opportunity evaded him for years — first because he was too young, then because he signed up too late or because there weren’t any slots available.
This year, the Santa Monica High School senior got his chance — not that the nonprofit organization hadn’t already made a transformational impact on him.
“It’s a family to me,” said Kanev, who plans to attend Santa Monica College and transfer to New York University. “I’ve grown really close with some of the staff members. I had some really bad habits, and they were supportive. They taught me ways to break those habits, and when I was struggling in school they got me dedicated. They won’t let me break focus.”
The cooking class is one of many enrichment activities organized by PAL, a city-backed after-school program that aims to keep youths ages 6-17 engaged and out of trouble while nurturing their development as upstanding citizens.
The culinary arts sessions are free for participants and supported in part by PAL’s annual golf tournament fundraiser, which will be held June 8 at Mountain Gate Country Club in Los Angeles. Proceeds contribute to a variety of the nonprofit’s educational and recreational offerings.
“It’s a fun event,” spokeswoman Donna Gentry said, “but the money we raise is the major objective.”
The objective of the cooking program, which is named after local restaurateur Fred Deni and currently in its fifth year, is to foster teens’ self-sufficiency by teaching them how to make quick, healthful meals. They meet once each week to learn about food preparation, nutrition and kitchen safety while adding to their repertoire of recipes.
Under the guidance of program supervisor Karen Humphrey, the students have produced everything from pasta and rice dishes to salads, flatbread pizzas and grilled kabob skewers.
“One of our rules is, whatever we make, everybody has to try it — myself included,” Humphrey said. “My hope is that they continue to cook at home. We want the kids to be able to cook food for their entire family.”
But the participants haven’t just prepared meals for their relatives. On April 30 they served dozens of donors and community members during Chez PAL, working alongside Deni and his staff at the Back on Broadway restaurant to turn out dishes like chicken piccata, salmon and spinach cannelloni.
Cesar Rodriguez, a Samohi junior who is in his third year in the culinary arts program, said he wasn’t relaxed during the annual fundraiser last year because he was still getting his bearings in a fast-paced service environment. But this year, he said, it was a great experience.
Rodriguez, who remembers watching his mom cook as a young child, joined PAL to follow in his older brothers’ footsteps. He now works part-time at the Buffalo Club restaurant on Olympic Boulevard and believes the skills he’s developed in the culinary arts program will help him later in life.
“You can stop with having just a cup of noodles,” he said. “When you grow up, your wife doesn’t always have to do all the cooking. … Having a good experience in anything, you can pass it on to others.”
Kanev, who has experience in choreography, guitar and singing, said the culinary arts program has broadened his knowledge base.
He knows PAL has had a strong presence in his life — he still remembers the Peter Pan poster that he saw when he first walked into the nonprofit’s facility at the corner of Olympic Boulevard and 14th Street.
But at a recent recognition dinner, he was floored by how much the organization has empowered others as well.
“A lot of people talked about their stories and what PAL has meant for them,” he said. “I cried because it’s amazing how much they’ve been through and how much PAL has helped them.”
Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, email@example.com or on Twitter.