Last December, we had a special guest in the kitchen who has not only made a tremendous impact on our young women, but on many of her peers across the globe. Sixteen year old Lara Cortes, who was traveling Southeast Asia for the first time with her parents, stopped by for a market tour and Thai cooking class!
Holding the 2018 title of Miss Teen Puerto Rico, Lara is an accomplished athlete, artist, and musician. She loves swimming, and is often found snorkeling in her beach hometown of Isabela, PR. Here we ask her what her favorite part of hanging in the Courageous Kitchen was and how she enjoys giving back to her community in Isabela.
CK: Did you have any expectations of Bangkok before your arrival?
LC: Not really, once I found out I was going to Thailand I was just ecstatic to travel and broaden my horizons. I wanted to fill my mind with experiences and stories to learn and tell to others.
CK: How did it live up to that?
LC: Thailand surpassed my expectations, everything was just amazing and so filled with culture, beautiful sights to see and especially amazing, friendly people.
CK: Can you tell us a little bit about your experience with Courageous Kitchen?
LC: It was an amazing experience meeting the girls who run the class. I believe they are capable of amazing things if they keep working as hard as they do.
I also enjoyed going to the market and learning about the vegetables and fruit we were going to cook with in the class. My favorite dishes to make were Tom Yum and Mango Sticky Rice.
CK: What was your favorite memory from your trip?
LC: My favorite memory of the trip would be when we went to Chiang Mai and spent the whole day at the elephant sanctuary, feeding them, walking with them and of course bathing them.
CK: Any advice for first time young travelers to Bangkok?
LC: The best advice I can give any young traveler like myself is do your research and have fun! Things will inevitably go wrong, but if you’ve done your research, it’s easier to keep your cool and focus on getting past big obstacles young travelers face like homesickness, fatigue, and culture shock.
CK: What’s the best part of holding the ‘Miss Teen Puerto Rico’ title?
LC: The best part of holding the title is being able to use it to inspire others while giving a helping hand to those in need. I give back to my community by visiting children with down syndrome and I encourage other teens like myself to give back by helping the less fortunate.
The best part of holding the title is being able to use it to inspire others while giving a helping hand to those in need…
We want to thank Lara and her parents for taking our cooking class and volunteering with our young women. We appreciate Lara’s courageous spirit, and are confident that if she continues to be so passionate about giving back, great things await in her future!
In addition to the services we provide to marginalized families in Bangkok, co-founder Christy Innouvong has been helping a special new family learn to thrive in San Diego, California. After helping launch our cooking classes in Bangkok in 2017, Christy returned to live in San Diego where she hosts cooking classes to help spread the word of our efforts in Thailand. Although the context for helping refugees in the US is very different, Christy has never forgotten her passion for helping families, and has been making efforts to connect with refugee communities in her area.
Just shy of six months ago she received word that a few families had been granted resettlement and she jumped at the chance to meet the new arrivals. We’re pleased to announce that Christy is now a Family Advocate for a Congolese family of five. The family came from Uganda where they lived in the uncertainty of a large refugee camp for the last 18 years. Needless to say, it has been a long and tiring journey for the courageous new family.
Currently, the three children are all enrolled in school and getting high remarks from their peers and teachers. They have made friends and found a local church with other Congolese families to have fellowship with. Dad, John, a former Pastor in his home country has found work at a furniture manufacturer and makes the two hour bus ride to and from work everyday. It is not an ideal situation, but he takes pride in being able to bring home a steady paycheck for the family. His wife, Alice, is an amazing seamstress and has started ESL classes at a community center. She enjoys being able to see her children attend school full time. Back in Uganda, school was often pushed to the back burner since bills took precedence. Christy is currently assisting them with budget and meal planning, but with the high price of housing in San Diego the family unfortunately still falls short every month. The looming uncertainty to put food on the table is still a reality; something they expected would improve coming to America.
San Diego is home to approximately 85,000 resettled refugees, and one of the highest concentrated cities for resettlement in the US — arriving by the thousands each year. With skyrocketing housing prices, many of the families sent here end up being shuffled to different cities or even states due to the lack of affordability and employment opportunities. There are several agencies who are serving as a launchpad for the new arrivals. Yet most organizations are stretched thin and services are limited. Food stamps and cash aid have been cut due to the government shutdown, and we’re doing our best to ensure the family’s food doesn’t run dry. John’s family, and other new arrivals like them still need our support.
At the moment we’re in need of extra supplies and hands to volunteer their time to mentor and help with English studies. We’re so thankful to the past donors who sponsored school supplies for the children privately, and now we’re others will allow us to continue to support this courageous family with clothing, food, and transportation fees. With Winter months still lingering, heavy coats, umbrellas, and scarves, are also still on the wishlist.
February is an exciting month for Courageous Kitchen! Not only have our weekend classes for at risk youth began again, but there are lots of other food and travel happenings this time of year. Most notably, one of our founders, Dwight Turner, will be speaking at The Seasons press conference this week. The event is hosted by the Thailand Authority of Tourism (TAT), and has rounded up a panel of people from varying backgrounds whose businesses or personal passion are impacting Thailand for the better.
Here’s a sneak peek into TAT’s interview with Dwight, where he discusses starting Courageous Kitchen, and connecting his personal passion for food with his mission to feed and educate more children in Bangkok.
How did you start CK and what is your objective?
Courageous Kitchen began because I was looking for a way to give back in my free time, but I didn’t know what to do. When a friend invited me to help teach English in a few poorer communities, I fell in love with it. Gradually I wanted to contribute more and more.
Later when I moved outside of the city center, we had space for a kitchen and I began to combine these two passions. Quickly we learned that the kitchen is a great classroom. Students who were shy about speaking English suddenly had context, an application, and an urgency to speak in the kitchen. As their language skills improved, so did their confidence.
Why do you use food as a medium to help you achieve your goals?
I love to eat and Bangkok is full of food and food enthusiasts. So it’s a great way to get people’s attention and bring them together for a purpose. This is true even when it may seem like we don’t have anything in common. We may speak a different language, have different skin color, but when we sit at the table together, we share and learn about each other.
What do you think of Thai food? What makes Thai cuisine outstanding to you?
I love Thai food because of the diversity of influences on the cuisine. There is such a pronounced Indian influence, the Chinese influence is probably the strongest, and there’s an interesting impact from the hill tribes and neighboring countries in the region as well.
This makes Thai food versatile for different types of people. You may not love chili and chicken feet curry, you may be vegetarian, or have another preference, but there’s likely a Thai dish out there for you.
Why are you interested in helping society, and helping underprivileged kids in Bangkok?
As a Black American I was raised with very strong sense of social justice. That all people are valuable, and that all people should be treated equally. Until this becomes a reality, we have a lot of work to do to create a better future for today’s kids. That’s true all over the world, but trying to solve global problems can seem overwhelming. That’s why it’s best to start by being the change we want to see in our local communities.
As a nonprofit, what do you expect to get in return for you work?
As a nonprofit, my job is challenging and rewarding everyday. There’s a very real challenge to captivate people’s attention long enough to share about people in need, and convince them to take action. However, seeing students, who may have never been in a real restaurant before, imagining themselves as chefs, speaking English more confidently, and becoming leaders in their families is a pretty great reward.
Any upcoming plans for CK?
At the moment we’re looking into ways to grow and strengthen our business. We don’t want to be solely dependent on people’s donations, so we’re looking to offer more to tourists who love food, and are passionate about making a difference with their visit to Thailand.
Is there a place in Thailand that you’re especially impressed by and why?
I recently got married in Langsuan, Chumporn. Each time we visit my wife’s family there I usually spend time in the gardens picking fruit off of the nutmeg, taling pling, and other trees in the yard. We have one cousin with a palm orchard, and another growing durian! I know you may expect me to say mountains or beaches, but it’s hard to beat family and food!
Thank you to TAT for hosting Dwight this week! We look forward to continuing this discussion as Thailand’s responsible tourism scene continues to develop. Other guests on the panel include representatives from Pop Art Bann 36, Immanuel Music School, Tlejourn Shoes, and Thai celebrity Top Pipat Apirakthanakorn.
Love Coffee? Us too! Give a gift that gives back this holiday!
We recently partnered with our friends from Solid Roasters to bring you quality coffee delivered right to your doorstep. This is big news just in time for the holidays for our fans living in the US. Now you can support Courageous Kitchen, with a cup of coffee, and when gifting coffee to a loved one. By purchasing a monthly subscription, you’ll receive two fair trade bags of high quality, whole or ground beans AND help us continue to provide food aid and education to marginalized youth.
Our roasters believe that coffee’s cultural pervasiveness has a unique advantage to shine light in dark places. They’ve sourced direct-trade beans from under-funded farmers, addressing the power imbalances typically found in organic growing methods. These ethical sourcing methods incentivize the quality of the beans. Whether bold, blonde, sweet, or rich, the distinct blends focus on the nuance and personality of each bean and region.
Were currently offering three single origin choices:
Light | Ethiopian Coffee
Medium | Colombian Coffee
Dark | Guatemalan Coffee
By purchasing a monthly coffee subscription you’re helping us supply a family with rice, and other supplies that will help combat the ills of malnutrition. Let’s share the beauty of speciality coffee, provide a fair wage to farmers, and spread love to the families in need this holiday!
Christy is the San Diego based Deputy Director of Courageous Kitchen. She strongly believes kitchens are the best classrooms.
We first met Chef Josh Venne a few years ago when he was touring the world. He made a stopover in Bangkok (one of his favorite cities) and reached out to us. His passion for service, culture, and food deeply aligned with our mission, and naturally he dove right in the kitchen and instantly became part of our Courageous Kitchen family.
We wanted you to get to know him, and asked him to share his story with us. In the interview below he gets candid, reminding us why it’s so important for us to share stories of overcoming struggle with our young leaders. Journeys from tragedy into triumph like Josh’s, inspire us, and give much needed hope to our students.
Read below to learn more about Chef Josh and see why he exemplifies courage in every way!
Q: I love how you’re making a name for yourself in an unconventional way. How long did it take you to get to this point?
So glad to hear it! I started cooking around the age of five for my siblings, and used it as a great stress reliever. I was interested in food very early and essentially wanted to be able to cook and eat every thing possible. When I was 15 I realized I wanted to pursue a career in food which was actually quite lucky. Some people take a lot longer so I was able to focus early and get lots of experience. Since then I have worked in some 25+ kitchens in five states in the USA. I have also traveled to 40+ countries for food research, and that’s really given me a huge base of experience and probably given me a good deal of an edge on my competition in the USA.
Many people are becoming more and more familiar with obscure cuisines. Take Thai food for example, there is so much more to it than just curries and papaya salad. Although I love the mainstays such as those, the more people learn about different cuisines and culture, the more I can cook things out of their normal comfort zone.
Q: What got you interested in food and sharing it with others, and when did you realize you had a knack for it?
I am heavily self-taught but I also graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, highly regarded as the best culinary school in the USA and one of the best in the world. However class learning is no replacement for experience, so I believe I have a good collection of both.
“It gave me a sense of purpose and satisfaction that not much else did.”
When I was younger, often times I would be forced to cook for myself and sometimes my siblings out of necessity. I would let friends try my items and got a great sense of pleasure from that. I also starting working at a pizza place in my young teenage years so that was a great source of pleasure as well. We wouldn’t cook much from scratch, but sometimes when we would run out of things made not in house, for example alfredo sauce, I remember making it from scratch, and completely baffling co-workers. After an especially stressful day at home, I would make large batches of things like Shepard’s pie and Bolognese. It was always way too much so I would gift it to friends. I realized I had a special gift to be able to not only taste items and make them my own, but that I also needed to share my gift with as many people as I could. It gave me a sense of purpose and satisfaction that not much else did.
Q: As a first-gen Lao American, I never wanted to embrace my Asian identity until I was much older. Have you always been a proud Asian American, or has it been a slow realization?
My mother was born in Korea, and had a pretty horrific childhood that plagued her entire life, and ultimately led to her death when I was 17, of a heroin overdose. She just couldn’t escape the darkness that followed her. She was adopted around age 8 I believe, to a single Irish woman who taught English in Massachusetts. My father was born in the USA to a German immigrant. Some of his siblings were born in the USA, and some in Germany.
I wouldn’t say I proudly identify as either German or Korean, but as an amalgamation of the both. Culturally I grew up in German influenced Massachusetts, with a little Irish culture peppered in. Korean culture wasn’t present because as my mom left when she was so young. We would occasionally go to the Korean market and get lots of panchan kimchee, and spicy marinated shiso leaves (my favorite), but that’s about it. Traveling around the world, and especially Asia, was certainly influenced by that.
But mostly I grew up eating American food with Massachusetts and German influence. Pasta, potatoes with kielbasa, schnitzel, German potato salad, sauerbraten, etc. The biggest influence is probably coastal Massachusetts. So I often cook seafood, lobster boils, and Portuguese influenced stews. Korean and German food make their way into my cuisine but not super often.
Q: Courageous Kitchen works with several refugee youth providing food education and teaching basic nutrition skills. What advice can you give to some of our students who may be in a situation similar to what your family experienced?
“Positivity breeds opportunity.”
Just keep pushing forward. Focus on the positive and try to ignore the negative. Positivity breeds opportunity. No one wants to take a chance on someone being negative and sad. Try to do things that advance your life, career, and display the positive parts of your day and feelings. It will help if you surround yourself with other positive people and never look back.
Q: Can you tell me what being courageous means to you?
Being courageous means to be brave in the face of danger and opposition. Life will only get harder, so I like to face the hardships head on to conquer them. Being courageous means getting out of your comfort zone and doing things that can be frightening. It also means going against the grain even if people don’t like it or approve. It also means being somewhat selfish at times.
For example, some people may not appreciate being served fish or other meat with the head still on. I will do whatever is needed to keep a dish enjoyable and authentic. It may not be well received by the majority, but if it is true to what makes the dish memorable for me, I do it. This keeps me innovating and pushing to educate and help people explore culture through cuisine.
Q: What have been the highlight moments of your culinary career? Alternatively, what have been the most challenging?
Catering my first solo wedding when I was 21, I was faced with every possible obstacle. The presents got stolen, the power went out, we were missing tons of ingredients, guests stole someone else’s plate while they were in the restroom, etc. but I still made it happen.
Taking my first solo trip to Taiwan was eye-opening. I realized I didn’t need a friend to travel with, and since then I’ve been to over 40 countries. So my highlight would be the opportunity to taste awesome food I would have never been able to try in the USA. And, of course, the weird stuff, like dog, eggs fermented in horse urine, bats, tarantulas, etc.
Q: I know you’ve got a lot going on — i.e. private events, catering, traveling and cooking classes in the mix. What’s next for you?
Right now I am trying to secure a job in the private chef sector. Restaurant work in amazing and fun but not financially rewarding. I’m ready to stay somewhat permanent for a bit and chip away at my student loan debt. In five years I’d love to be debt free, and starting to save to open my own restaurant. I’d like to focus on fast casual so more people can enjoy my food rather than fine dining. I’d also liked to be married or almost married with kids in the near future.
Q: Can you share your favorite recipe with our readers?
This is tricky, but I will share my scallion pancake recipe that really carried The Beacon Bite, the food trailer I previously co-owned in Beacon, NY. It is a yeast risen pancake that acted as a vehicle for our Korean marinated pork wrap.
All purpose flour, one part
Bread flour, three parts
Water, warm 1 part (by weight)
Salt, 1 pinch
Yeast, 1 tsp per cup of flour
Thinly sliced scallions
Sauce made of soy, sesame oil, mirin, rice wine
Mix the yeast in the warm water. Mix the flour with salt in a mixer or by hand. Pour in the water and mix gradually. If it needs a little water or flour to adjust consistency, add it. The dough should be homogenous and slightly sticky. Work the dough until the gluten is well developed and the dough bounces back almost fully when you stick your finger in.
Portion the dough into dough balls 3-6 ounces as desired. Roll nicely and rest on sheet tray while you cut the scallions and make the sauce.
Roll the dough ball into a kind-of flat circle, using a rolling pin and as little flour as possible. Brush the sauce on the entire surface facing you, and sprinkle lightly with scallions. Roll the dough up tight, into a long snake. Then coil the dough onto itself and squish it together. The last tip may need a pinky finger full of sauce to stick. Flatten the dough out with your hand and roll again into a perfect circle again using as little flour as possible. They may need to rest a bit before to let the gluten relax.
Cook the pancake on a flattop or pan with a little cooking oil. Enjoy with the sauce you made for dipping, or stuff as a wrap with meat, vegetables, mayo, etc. At the Beacon Bite we did a spicy gochujang marinated pork shoulder with sesame carrot slaw and toasted chili mayo.
We are grateful to call Chef Josh Venne a good friend, and thankful to him for sharing, and serving our community with his whole heart. His love of adventure shines through in his cooking, his infectious smile, and his zest for life.
To connect with Chef Josh, find him on instagram as @jawshey.