Friday, August 15, 2014

Cooking for First Descents

Heart shaped rocks found by the river in Tarkio

When I first got involved, I didn't know what cooking for First Descents would be like, but at the same time I knew it was what I needed to do. I just had no clue at the time how much the experience would mean to me.

I first learned about First Descents from my culinary school's alumni job board.  Back in March of this year, there was a post that FD was looking for a west coast chef for a program this summer.  Within 5 minutes of the post going up, I was on the phone asking about it.   I have cooked for retreats before and it is my absolute favorite kind of setting to work in. The fact that these trips would also mean cooking for people dealing with cancer just made it even more of a perfect match for me.

When the idea first came to me about going to culinary school back 10 years ago, it was partly because I had a passion bubbling inside of me to cook for people with compromised immune systems, specifically, those with AIDS and those going through cancer treatments. I had lost my own Mother to stomach cancer 5 years previous to that. Going through her cancer experience brought us both new realizations about the link between food and health. I started studying naturopathic healing systems and my interest in clean, healthy food grew. Unfortunately, my Mom passed so quickly that we were not able to make a difference in her diagnosis. Over the years I realized I wanted to find a way to give back and help others in a way that I was not able to help her.

Evening campfire in Hood River, OR

I jumped into working with First Descents and immediately committed to two weeks in Hood River, Oregon in June.

View of Mt Hood from the deck

It took about one day of being there, meeting the Program Directors, all the participants and volunteers, that I was begging to do more programs this summer. I am incredibly lucky and was asked to do a week in Tarkio, Montana in August, and two weeks in Santa Barbara coming up in September.

Cooking for a group like this means long days in the kitchen. We made breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus an afternoon happy (or "appy") hour which gives the group something to snack on when they get back from the river. The menus are meant to be healthy, but also just good, clean, familiar food. We also have to tailor our menus to accommodate food allergies and try to keep everything low sugar and organic whenever possible.

Burger Night in Tarkio

While I and my sous chef are cooking away in the kitchen all day, the group goes out and learns how to kayak, surf or rock climb. The three programs I have done so far have been kayaking trips.  For many of the participants this is the first time they have ever been in a kayak. And, they have just left their home and come across the country to a new place where they do not know anyone. But none of that matters. They are surrounded by people that are happy they are there. They are among people with similar stories and struggles, and somehow, out in the great outdoors and on the river, the magic of creating a new family, happens.

Evening campfire in Tarkio, MT

What I get out of being a part of this group is hard to express. This is unlike any other cooking job I have ever had, and maybe it is because it really doesn't feel like a "job".  I can only say that I am thankful to be a part of these trips and to meet so many strong, courageous and inspiring people.  And did I mentioned they are all between the ages of 18 and 39? (yeah, cancer sucks.)  As I shared at one of the evening campfires, I may be physically tired, but my heart is full.

I even got to leave the kitchen one morning and get out on the river with the group. Now that was fun. Nothing like being out on the river with the sun and rapids to remind you to slow down, stop thinking and worrying about everything, and appreciate the day.

Rafting in Montana with our guide, Uncle Dirt

My life is forever changed for having been a part of this amazing family. I am thankful for the people I have met and the stories I have heard. The beauty of Mt Hood and Tarkio, Montana sure don't hurt either.

Oh, and I learned a new recipe for these delicious treats, a natural chocolate truffle. YUM! Don't ask me what is in them, just let me make some for you. You will thank me later.

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