When it comes to improving relations between Chicago police and the people they serve, one program hopes it has a recipe for success.
Through Cooking with Cops, officers at the Englewood police station on 63rd Street tie aprons over their uniforms and whip up nutritious dishes with at-risk kids.
“Kids get to know us,” said Officer Bill Langle, who participated in a Cooking with Cops program last Friday. “Police officers do so much more than what’s out there, what people think.”
At the station, about a dozen officers and 10 neighborhood kids divided into teams to prepare lunch — hamburgers, potatoes and a “mystery side” made from fresh vegetables.
The kids and officers and discussed how to prepare the vegetables, which were picked earlier that morning by The Chicago Eco House, a sustainability-focused organization with a farm at 61st and Stewart.
Without recipes, the groups had to be creative. One group, team Master Chef, sliced vegetables and mixed seasonings to make a cucumber, tomato and basil salad.
Craig Couper, executive chef at Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse, was there to offer professional guidance. Stationed at the potato table, he gave kids tips on sautéing and seasoning.
“This is exactly what I envisioned — a little bit of chaos, a lot of fun,” said Latrice McArthur, who founded Bella Cuisine Kids Cooking Club, the nonprofit organization behind Cooking with Cops.
Most of the children participating at last week’s session were from I Grow, a nonprofit committed to sustainable farming and environmental education. Cooking with Cops, which started in August 2015, has previously involved kids from Langford Community Academy and a nearby church, McArthur said.
Some of the officers recently prepared a luncheon at a City Council meeting through the program. Others had participated at the station before, producing foods such as fajitas, Spanish rice and turkey sliders.
On Friday, however, was the first Cooking with Cops outing for Officer Mike Conroy.
“This is just one of those things that’s nice because there’s no stress. It’s just kids being kids and learning and doing what kids are supposed to do,” Conroy said over the sizzle of fingerling potatoes being cooked by a 9-year-old.
Tasting the food is the best part, said 6-year-old Daquan Moore and 8-year-old Timya Owens. The kids also take on tasks they might not otherwise get to, Officer Michele Millison said.
“She makes it pretty much an art in getting them involved in everything,” Millison said about McArthur, the program’s founder.
“We get to make the hamburgers and season them,” said 8-year-old Aliyah Hill.
McArthur said there aren’t usually leftovers, but if there are, the kids take them home.
“The majority of our kids have food insecurities,” McArthur said. “They don’t eat outside of school hours . . . they don’t eat at home.”
The kids who participated Friday receive one meal a day through I Grow, she said, and can sometimes get free breakfast and lunch from programs run by the city. Cooking with Cops gives them a reliable meal once a week.
Cooking with Cops can operate in four different police districts this year because of the $25,000 Peace Grant recently awarded to Bella Cuisine Kids Cooking Club, McArthur said.
In February, Cooking with Cops launched at two police stations in Englewood’s 7th District, and those locations have the most officers involved, McArthur said. She also holds Cooking with Cops at stations in the 3rd District and the West Side’s 14th District.
It’s free to register for the program. The exact dates and times vary from station to station. Groups typically enroll for seven weeks; some continue for 10 weeks.
Kids can re-enroll, McArthur said. The time frame is in place simply to give others the chance to participate.
Cooking with Cops culminates with a pop-up restaurant, where the officers and youth participants from the different stations come together to deliver three-course meals to residents.
This year’s pop-up restaurant event will be held at the South Shore Cultural Center at 6 p.m. on Sept. 2. The ticket price hasn’t been set. Typically, they cost $40, but McArthur said the grant money might help offset that cost.
Through Cooking with Cops, 12-year-old Anthony Hughlett learned what he wants to do with his life.
“I’m going to be a chef because I can help some people,” he said. “They can have more food and I can actually challenge myself at work.”
The officers have already chosen their career paths, but they still take something from the culinary experience.
“It’s great to see organizations be that midpoint” between the police and community members, Officer Langle said. “There’s not two sides of the table. We’re at the table together.”