Camp Zama Youth Center Cooking Club teaches life skills

Photo By Winifred Brown | Brianna Maxwell, right, sprinkles seasoning on mixed vegetables as Dominic Rodgers looks on during a meeting of the Cooking Club at the Camp Zama Youth Center, Camp Zama, Japan, Jan. 31, 2020.
February 06, 2020

CAMP ZAMA  – Instructors for the Cooking Club at the Camp Zama Youth Center rotate on a regular basis. Some instructors teach precise baking skills, others show teens how to make Japanese foods, and still others focus on particulars such as smoothies.

William Birdsall, however, a program assistant at the center, took a purely pragmatic approach when he led the club here Jan. 31. Hesitating to call the dish he taught the youths an actual “recipe,” he showed them how to improve the nutritional value of instant cup ramen by adding chicken and vegetables.

“The purpose of this is to basically show you guys, if you go to college and you’re a little low on funds, and all you can afford is ramen, this is what is going to help you so you don’t have to eat just cup ramen,” Birdsall told the youths.

Birdsall, a former military police officer previously stationed at Camp Zama, said he learned how to make the meal when he was a Soldier and occasionally found himself too late to eat at the dining facility.

“I’ve cooked it before and I still cook it now too, so it’s not bad,” Birdsall said. “I’m glad I found out about it. I’m just trying to pass on the knowledge so if they do come into a situation where they’re tired of just eating plain ramen, and if they’re bored, they can just throw some stuff together and then, ‘bam.’”

The ingredients for the meal included three packages of instant cup ramen, a bag of frozen mixed vegetables, a bag of frozen chicken strips, hot sauce and assorted seasonings such as garlic powder.

Leftovers also often work well with the dish, Birdsall said, and he encouraged the teens to improvise if they make it in the future.

After the teens donned hairnets, carefully washed their hands and put on gloves, Birdsall delivered a safety briefing to his five students: Kristian Brush, Brianna Maxwell, Dominic Rodgers, Emma Sakamoto-Flack and Keito White.

Birdsall warned against any kind of horseplay due to the heat and knives being used to prepare the food, and also pointed out the location of the fire extinguisher.

The teens then got to work cutting up the chicken, heating it up in a pan on the stove, adding the vegetables, and finally, adding a little water and the ramen noodles. After carefully considering the seasonings, they mostly went with hot sauce and garlic powder.

In the end, the teens said their work tasted good and they enjoyed participating in the club.

“I like ramen,” said Kristian. “It’s really good and the vegetables make it healthy. It tastes good with the seasonings.”

Brianna, who advocated for a lot of garlic powder in the meal, said she also liked the way the meal turned out.

“Today’s recipe was easy and good,” Brianna said.

Keito, who has participated in the club previously, said he would likely make the meal on his own at home.

The club, Keito said, teaches helpful skills.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for learning,” Keito said.

Dominic and Emma, meanwhile, said this was their first time participating in the club, and they might make the dish at home sometime.

“I liked helping cook it up and season it,” Emma said. “It tasted good.”

Hannah Maza, the center’s assistant director, said the monthly Cooking Club teaches important life skills.

In addition to nutrition and eating well, the club also teaches how to pick out ingredients and use a stove to properly heat up, for example, milk for hot cocoa, Maza said.

“Little life skills like that are what the clubs are used to enhance their experience here,” Maza said. “They think it’s just eating, but we’re trying to teach them life skills beyond the teen center—life after the teen center.”

The center also offers the Keystone Club, the Power Hour, Youth Sponsorship, the Debate Club, the SMART Girl’s Club, the Wise Guy’s Club and Functional Fitness, and all the clubs teach youth life skills, Maza said.