08/20/2012 12:40 EDT | Updated 10/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Start From Scratch cooking classes teach students to sidestep boxed foods

TORONTO - Many cash-strapped post-secondary students have little extra money for food, let alone cooking classes. Enter Dan Clapson, a food writer and self-taught cook who provides free lessons to university students.

Clapson launched the hands-on program now known as Start From Scratch in January 2011 and offered it to students at the University of Calgary. He's opened it up to students at the city's Mount Royal University, and this fall students at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon will also benefit.

It was his way to help make some people's lives better, he explained by phone.

While shopping one day, the Calgary resident saw some young people with their grocery cart piled with frozen pizzas, instant noodles, boxed macaroni and other prepared items. Cringing, he thought, "I couldn't imagine eating like that anymore."

"I remember being young, 19 or 20, and you're going to school and you're broke and you don't really know how to cook anything, so you just default to that kind of stuff," he said. "I thought, 'I have some extra time. How hard could it be to teach some people how to cook?'

"Little did I know it would take a lot of time, but I enjoy doing it."

Clapson, 27, has recruited chefs, cookbook authors and other local food personalities to teach some of the classes. Dietitian Vincci Tsui has come on board to replace instructor Jacinthe Koddo, who's moving to Vancouver, and is invaluable in explaining how to read nutrition labels.

In their online applications, students are asked to explain why they want to participate and their level of cooking expertise.

"We look for the students that are not very good in the kitchen, not very talented and looking for some help," explained Clapson. "We like to have a range of talents in the classes. It's a good mix having ones with a bit more experience with ones who don't really even know how to boil pasta."

Three or four budget-conscious recipes are presented in each 2 1/2-hour session. Topics include quick and easy breakfast foods, appetizers and how to cook grains. There's a class on cooking a romantic dinner on a budget while "couch change classics" provides go-to recipes for times when cash found among the sofa cushions determines what's for dinner.

Alyssa Athanasopoulos, who recently graduated from the communications program at the University of Calgary, was a participant.

"I wanted to do something with my love of food and came across this ad for an opportunity for students to cook better because I was living on my own and didn't really have a clue and made toast all the time. I applied and was so lucky to get in."

Athanasopoulos, 26, and Sarah Cicchine, a Mount Royal student, both liked the class when Connie DeSousa, co-owner of Charcut Roast House, toured participants around the Calgary Farmers' Market. DeSousa placed third in the first season of the Food Network series "Top Chef Canada."

"Actually talking to the farmers, talking to the people who work for these companies and learning how to eat healthy, how to buy happy animals, how to buy organic dairy, that was a really big thing for me," said Cicchine, 24, who has graduated and is working as a massage therapist.

"That was a huge learning curve as well. It was more than just, 'Here are some healthy things to eat and how to cook them.' It's: 'This is where your food is coming from and we need to be more educated citizens in society,'" she added.

The Calgary Co-op has been supplying the venue and groceries for the U of C and Mount Royal students. Saskatoon students will likely attend classes on their campus, Clapson said.

"As a student having one meal paid for a week is unbelievable and being able to cook it yourself is fantastic," said Cicchine.

Clapson said a goal is to show students how to compare the cost of buying a convenience food versus making a similar item from scratch.

"A 25-cent pack of instant noodles is cheap, but it's like eating cardboard," he noted.

"We break (recipes) down all by cost so students can see how much everything costs by portion. I think when you're a student you don't have a lot of money and you don't know how to budget appropriately. You go to a grocery store and you can buy a boxed product and think it's saving you money and time and when you break it down it isn't," he said.

"Dan's main focus, you can tell, is teaching that food doesn't have to be from a box and it's better for you in the end," said Cicchine. "As a student specifically, to eat better you're going to get better grades."

The course ends on a sweet note with the students making flourless chocolate souffles, meringue cookies and granita, a frozen concoction related to sorbet.

"The thing with this class is the basis behind it is making things from scratch is a lot easier than you think so making a souffle actually is quite, quite simple," said Clapson. "So that's why we choose that kind of dessert because that's maybe the kind of dessert you eat in a restaurant and it's really impressive, but when you whip it up at home it's not that difficult."

The former students say the lessons have stayed with them.

"There's definitely things I'm going to carry with me forever because you have to cook every day," said Cicchine. "Especially one thing I never thought I'd ever really teach myself to learn was making risotto. We made it one week and I realized how fantastically easy it is."

Athanasopoulos said she always makes her own pesto now.

"There's hardly anything in my fridge I don't make from scratch anymore."


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