What’s WCSS cooking?

It's a bit of an odd experience at first, donning an apron and getting ready to prepare dinner with a group of seven strangers. But as the room fills with the rich aromas of sautéing onions, zested lemon and freshly chopped herbs a feeling of camaraderie falls over the kitchen.

During the first of five Community Kitchen sessions put on by the Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS), we listen intently to Karen Kay, owner and operator of Kaytering Whistler, as she talks about her borderline obsession with lentils, and how eating organic, vegan foods can actually be cheaper than a traditional meat-eater's diet. Now, I'm definitely not a vegan but I enjoy eating whole, healthy foods, and as Kay points out, meat can certainly be substituted into any of these recipes.

Creamed corn, squash and potato chowder,  raw beet and dill salad, French lentil salad, and Shepherd's pie are the four vegan-friendly dishes on the menu this evening. All sound delicious, and despite the fact that they've been prepared by a ragtag bunch of aspiring cooks and food lovers they all prove to taste delicious as well.

Kay hosts the session at her home business in Alpine in a shed that has been converted into a bright, welcoming kitchen filled with sleek, stainless steel appliances. She has been running her catering business for 21 years, but her true passion seems to be educating people about the benefits of preparing healthy foods.

She first got involved with the Whistler Community Services Society's Community Kitchens program in the mid-'90s, facilitating sessions for about two years before the demand dwindled. The program was relaunched in staff housing about four years ago, with Whistler Blackcomb supporting it entirely so their staff members could eat healthier foods.

"They're trying to encourage the kids to eat healthy. Of course, if they're healthy, they're working and happy," she explained.

"Basically, I focus on the vegetarian cuisine... because its so economical and most people know how to cook a piece of chicken but they don't know, necessarily, how to cook with lentils or beans or grains," she continued, adding that she uses local and seasonal ingredients as much as possible.

WCSS decided to relaunch their Community Kitchen program this year, and Kay happily resumed her role as facilitator by teaching people how to cook healthy foods on a budget, for a fee of just $5.

"I wanted to really focus on the people that are living here," she said, "I've been trying to encourage (community services) to get it back into the community and get the funding for it."

She isn't sure who will come out to this series of sessions, but hopes she can pass on some of her knowledge to people who need it.

"I think, for the most part, its going to be younger people that are struggling and want to learn more skills, cooking-wise, and are trying to stretch their budget further because food's not getting any cheaper, and nobody's wages seem to be going up," Kay said with a laugh.

The sessions are really hands-on cooking classes with supervision. Kay breaks us up into four groups of two and lets us loose with recipes in-hand.

After about an hour and a half of chopping, sautéing, and pureeing, four finished dishes sit ready to sample. Before we dig in, Kay gathers us around the kitchen island, big binder in hand, to show us how much each serving costs: $1 for a generous bowl of chowder, $2 for a cup of beet salad, $1.43 for a slightly bigger serving of the French lentil salad, and just $2.43 for a massive helping of Shepherd's Pie.

For just $5, we walk away with full bellies and four new recipes to add to our culinary repertoires.

The next WCSS Community Kitchens session on March 8 is already sold out, but the April 5 class still has spots, so contact admin@mywcss.org to sign up.

Extra helpings

Araxi has always been known in foodie circles as an amazing culinary destination, but now a certain chef known for his explosive temper has given the long-time establishment his seal of approval.

Chef Gordon Ramsay, the British chef and television personality of shows like "Kitchen Nightmares," "Hell's Kitchen," and "The F Word," recently referred to Araxi as the best restaurant in Canada during an interview with George Stroumboulopoulos on "The Hour." Ramsay dined at the Whistler restaurant earlier this month.

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