Sierra Johnson pours cake batter into pans as fellow students Sylberline Atufu, center,and Kadiata Toumbou, right, and Brainfood program director Amy Daly look on. (Kris Coronado/For The Washington Post)

A visit to the D.C. nonprofit group Brainfood on a weekday evening shows that its program of cooking lessons for teenagers is a recipe for success. There, teens slice, dice and stir as if they’ve been doing it for years, not months.

“If you feel like making something you can, because you know how to do it,” says Oni Crawford, 17.

Brainfood teaches 125 D.C. area high-school students such as Crawford the ins and outs of cooking and, along the way, a bit about growing up. The kids brainstorm about the dishes they want to learn to make, and program staffers find recipes from such Web sites as and The kids meet from September through May, and volunteers are needed at one of the two weekly sessions to help with groups of students working on a recipe. They answer questions and offer advice throughout the cooking process, even if it’s not about the task at hand.

At a recent night in the kitchen Brainfood uses at St. Stephen’s Church in Columbia Heights, the menu is mac and cheese, ginger-baked apples and cheesecake. Jomani Drayton and Antonia Brown stand before a pot of boiling water and take turns stirring a cheddar cheese sauce on an adjacent burner. The Benjamin Banneker Academic High School sophomores are chuckling, excited about the smoky macaroni and cheese they’re making. Volunteer Sarah Waxman, 25, stands alongside them, chatting and watching them stir. “Hey,” she says to the pair, “why don’t you tell about the cheesecake brownies?”

Both girls gasp and laugh.

“We were working together, and it said 1 / 4 teaspoon of salt,” says Drayton. “I put 1 / 4 cup. Those brownies were horrible.”

Brown agrees: “So salty!”

Hey, it happens. That’s part of the learn-as-you-go process in Brainfood’s program. In the beginning, the students are baking cookies, but by the end, they’re rolling sushi. And their progress is made possible by help from volunteers.

“When people think about volunteering in general, they always think that it’s a responsibility, not a burden, but something they have to do,” says Joshua Hoffman, now in his second year of volunteering with Brainfood. “I do it because I enjoy it as much as the kids do, if not more. I think I get more out of it both in terms of learning basic cooking skills as well as having fun interacting with the kids.”

Once program director Amy Daly runs through the instructions for each recipe, the teens break into three groups, and one volunteer tags along with each cluster as the students chop and stir.

As volunteer Ellie Wigodsky peels apples with Banneker seniors Crawford and Sydney Porter, the talk veers from the colleges they’d like to attend to how hard it is watching a grandparent deal with Alzheimer’s.

That’s the point, says Daly. Brainfood doubles as a setting where D.C. youths can open up and talk to mentors about their daily lives. “I hope they feel empowered,” she says. “You really are in charge of your own life and the direction you go.”

How to get involved: One-hour orientation and weekly participation required as well as a background check and health screening. Classes run Monday-Thursday, 4 to 6:30 p.m. at sites in Chinatown and Columbia Heights. Prospective volunteers can e-mail For more information: or 202-667-5515.