Meet Perspectives’ New Masterful Chef
Eating healthy food doesn’t have to be a struggle. Paschell Wilson, the new director of Kids Café and chef instructor, has fun with preschoolers who are being introduced to adult food flavors.
Upstairs the 3- and 4-year olds play happily and noisily, with no clue of what is waiting for them downstairs in just a few hours.
In the freshly scrubbed from top-to-bottom kitchen, the new director of Perspectives Kids Café, Paschell Wilson, is adding Worcestershire sauce to her sun-dried tomato gravy, sautéing strips of beef and sprinkling parsley over baby carrots. There are a few safe harbors, as well: water, homemade rolls and sliced apples.
In the course of a week, the kids’ palates are about to be challenged by the likes of baby carrots with green stuff sprinkled on top; just-picked vegetables, such as kale and yellow squash, hiding in their smoothies; and even Brussels sprouts, yikes.
Jeremiah Lanes, a member of ACF who has volunteered at Kids Café for years, has been hired to be part of the culinary team at the nonprofit in St. Louis Park.
The preschool breakfast and lunch program is as new as the chef. “In the beginning half the kids weren’t eating ‘cause it was different,” Wilson says. But as they became more and more accustomed to seeing a variety of foods (and lower sugar content), they started trying different things, and for the most part liking it.
Even Brussels sprouts, adds Sue Zelickson, the founder of Kids Café, who is still actively involved with it.
One of many rules the purist Wilson has is that kids are not to express their opinions about what’s served, since one yuck leads to another, until no child will try the new offering.
Wilson, on the other hand, has opinions. Outfitted in a white chef’s coat and apron, a vivid red flowered silk scarf replacing the traditional chef’s hat or baseball cap, she cuts a confident, in-charge figure in Perspectives’ commercial kitchen. One might see her as intimidating, if not for her frequent laughter and large smile. And she genuinely loves kids. The wattage on her smile turns up even higher when the youngsters are escorted into the room by their teacher.
Another change Wilson made to the kitchen is to purchase child-size cutlery and serving tongs, plus light-weight plastic bowls and platters so kids can pass food more easily for communal dining. They’ve always used cloth napkins and Wilson is teaching table manners, along with upping their nutrition.
Since she already was cooking for the preschoolers, Wilson invited staff to join them for breakfast and lunch, as well. Keeping staff healthy is a newer trend in the food industry, as restaurateurs and others find that the healthier options they’re cooking for guests aren’t always making their way down the line to their employees.
Another of Wilson’s rules is that if staff goes through the serving line, they can’t take their meal back to their desks to eat. She wants them to sit at the table with the kids and talk. But as Wilson and longtime volunteer-turned-employee Jeremiah Lanes help the kids serve themselves and encourage passing platters, staff congregated at their own table.
The feisty Wilson allowed it that day— she had smaller fish to fry with the kids.
Paschell Wilson also helps out at the popular Cooking with the Stars event where well-known Twin Cities chefs teach the highest bidders from Perspectives annual fundraiser how to make some of their signature dishes.
The board is also privy to small bites of healthy, stylish food at Perspectives’ board meetings, to the delight of members. “Don’t print that,” Zelickson says, waving her hands. “We don’t want people to think we’re getting too fancy.”
But it doesn’t appear Wilson is showing off, rather that her sense of hospitality is innate. And so is her kid-friendly attitude. She has a master’s in family and human development and is a child life specialist. And while she’s a self-taught chef, she’s cooked in kitchens around the country, picking up tips because she’s not afraid to ask questions.
“You have to pay attention to chefs in the kitchen, you have to know why you’re doing things a particular way,” she says. Often the answer to her question will be to just watch, and she says she replies, “I can see what you’re doing. I want to know why you’re doing it.”
Wilson, a native Minnesotan, started on this path as a volunteer in her daughter’s first-grade class in Dade County, Florida. Teachers were sending home lists of supplies the classroom required. They also needed volunteers, since parent volunteers were scarce, and “my daughter started signing me up for everything,” she says, laughing.
When her daughter discovered classmate lived in a homeless shelter, she begged to give her friend her toys and clothes. Instead, Wilson started volunteering in the rescue shelter where the girl and her mother were staying.
She learned to cook by following recipes in her then boyfriend’s gourmet kitchen. “I wanted to eat out, but I couldn’t afford it,” she says, after one dinner at a fancy restaurant cost $200 and they left hungry. “We stopped at KFC on the way home,” she says, shaking her head.
Wilson focused on French cuisine and got her first big break catering for a family member connected to the music industry in Los Angeles. “He had some swanky guests there,” she says, some of whom became future customers.
In between gigs of personal chefing, Wilson traveled overseas and volunteered in a variety of kid-centric programs. She taught girls in a Guatemalan orphanage to make chocolate chip cookies to sell. The budding entrepreneurs learned how to make great chocolate chip cookies, but also salesmanship, such as how to price cookies so you don’t have to make change. “The first time we sold out in 30 minutes,” she says, proudly. In Italy, she helped teach drama with only a rudimentary knowledge of the language and Google translation on her phone.
The Crown Jewel of Kids Café
In addition to her breakfast and lunch duties, Wilson also works with older kids in the long-running, hands-on educational program that teaches cooking and nutritional skills to the children of the women who are staying in Perspective housing while dealing with issues, such as abuse, homelessness and substance abuse.
Crave Chef Jim Kyndberg, one of many chef volunteers, joined Paschell Wilson to cook dinner at Kids Café recently.
In addition to Wilson and longtime volunteer Lanes, chef volunteers from restaurants as well as from the Minneapolis chapter of the ACF help prepare the meals and eat with the kids. It’s the older kids’ turn to learn about healthy food and dining etiquette, such as settling a table and sharing a meal with people from the larger community. Lanes says he appreciates that while he’s showing her the ropes, he’s learning from her.
“I feel like I’ve landed a dream job,” Wilson says. “In the past six years, I’ve had seven jobs and they were concerned, but (I told them) I’m trying to find my end job … I want to finish my last 25 years (of work) here.”
Cecelia Doyle, vice president of children’s services for the nonprofit, is confident in their hire. She was impressed by Wilson earning a master’s degree and that she had dealt with children in trauma situations before.
“At the end of the day, we’re a child-teaching organization,” she says, adding it’s unusual for someone to have both child welfare and chef backgrounds.
“It was a match made in heaven,” she says. “She’s a true artist. Her food is beautiful to look at.” And to eat.