Casey Smith marinated on the idea for a long time. It started when she was living in Santiago a few years ago with her husband and trying to learn Spanish. She found it was easier for her to pick up words from her Chilean cookbook than to remember what she was learning in her twice-a-week language class.
“The act of having to translate the recipe and actually cooking it and tasting everything—that really worked for me,” says Casey. “I found I remembered all those words. I could really connect with it.”
The flavors, the tactile experience of making the recipes with her own hands, the surprise and delight of her Chilean neighbors when they found out she was making their favorite recipes—it all helped her learn a new language and feel connected to her community while she was in a new place.
Back in her home of Austin, Texas, Casey found that there were a lot of people who were looking for a similar experience as they were learning English in the U.S. That’s why in 2010 Casey started Cooking Up English, a hybrid cooking course and ESL program, to help folks looking to practice their English while getting a taste of American culture.
The classes, which take place in a local church kitchen, are focused around different themes. Right now they’re offering a five-week series on American breakfasts. Later this fall, it will be comfort foods.
With a spatula in hand, students practice everything from food vocabulary to expressions like “eyeballing it” while practicing conversational English as they put together the dishes.
The course also takes students on field trips to the local farmers’ market where they can learn about healthy, local foods while practicing their English by talking with the vendors.
How you can replicate it
Since its start, Cooking Up English has engaged students from 14 different countries, including Colombia, Hungary, Iraq, Russia, and South Korea.
Some are visitors, some have recently moved to the U.S., but everyone wants to practice their language skills in a supportive, appetizing environment.
If you’re interested in starting a similar project in your community, here’s Casey’s recipe for success:
1. Be open and welcoming.
Your students shouldn’t be the only ones who are there to listen and learn. As a facilitator, it’s also important for you to have an open mind.
“When you’re trying to do cultural exchange and language learning, it’s important to be on the same playing field,” says Casey. “Try not to oppress your language on another person, but to really be in a receiving mode.”
Casey says one of the most surprising and wonderful developments from Cooking Up English has been the enthusiasm her students have had for sharing their own language and recipes. At the end of the American breakfasts series, for example, students stood up in front of the class to present a breakfast recipe from their own country.
2. Use existing groups to help spread the word.
Casey says one of the biggest challenges in getting Cooking Up English off the ground was getting the word out and letting people know it existed. To help with this, they tapped into groups that were already working with their target populations—churches, immigrant groups, other ESL programs, mosques, and temples—to help spread the word.
3. Use a model.
Cooking Up English now offers complete curriculum sets including five weeks of ready-to-use materials with vocabulary essentials, visual glossaries, student worksheets, and teaching manuals for each of their eight series.
4. Be prepared.
Even if you use the Cooking Up English curriculum kit to help get you started, it’s important to have your logistics figured out. Make sure you reserve a comfortable kitchen site and have between five and seven committed instructors lined up.
For each class, Casey suggests having at least two teachers working together. “It’s always helpful to have another set of eyes to make sure a cup of salt doesn’t end up in the recipe instead of a teaspoon.”
At the end of the Cooking Up English series, Casey likes to put on a dinner party at a board member’s home. At one of these parties, a student from Vietnam told her that even though he had lived with his family in the U.S. for three years, it was the first party he had been to in his new country.
“He felt so special to be invited,” Casey says.“I encourage everyone to have an open table, an open mind, and an open heart. We don’t want any of our new residents to wait to be invited to be a part of our community.”
Want to use Casey’s curriculum to start a Cooking Up English chapter where you live? Get in touch with her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.