With 10 teen moms currently living on the St. Gerard campus, there are always 20 mouths to feed.
Local chef Tyrone Bennett is volunteering his time and talents to make sure these young pregnant women and new mothers learn how to nurture themselves and their babies deliciously and nutritiously.
St. Gerard, a nonprofit, houses the teens on its St. Augustine campus which also serves as a private high school that allows the young women to continue their education, and even graduate, while they prepare to give birth.
On a recent weekday night, Bennett could be found making himself at home in the group home’s kitchen, locating ingredients and cooking tools in order to demonstrate the preparation of sweet and sour chicken over white rice.
Bennett, who heads up Flagler College’s food and beverage department and runs his own catering company, specializes in what he calls “Southern comfort food with a twist” (he hopes to launch his own food truck business shortly).
Bennett, who trained professionally with Johnson & Wales culinary program, said for the cooking classes he leads at St. Gerard’s he tries to focus on food that is free of preservatives and not too difficult or expensive to make.
“Especially with women who are pregnant, I think it’s just healthier for her and the child to cook as much from scratch,” Bennett said as he oversaw 18-year-old Jocelyn Reyes sifting cubed chicken into a coated flour mixture.
“So it’s real basic, maybe a 15- or 20-minute meal,” Bennett added
Reyes, who has a 2-week-old son, said she didn’t have much experience in the kitchen although she did try her hand at one of the recipes Bennett had demonstrated previously, General Tso’s chicken.
“It was just OK,” Reyes said with a laugh. “It was missing the crunch.”
Although he grew up watching relatives cook, Bennett said that is not the experience for everyone and it can take time to get down the fundamentals, such as boiling rice.
“It is definitely possible to burn rice,” said Bennett.
St. Gerard’s began in 1981 when Carol Wolff and her husband moved to St. Augustine. Carol met a teenage mother who had been kicked out of her parents’ home and forced to live with a man who was abusing her and her child. Wolff soon realized there were no agencies in St. Johns County to support these women. With the support of Catholic Charities, Carol began counseling pregnant women, providing them with essential supplies and any support she could.
Now in her 80s, Wolff’s mission continues.
Wolff purchased a little more than an acre of land on U.S. 1 South and established the refuge that would help improve the lives of more than 30,000 women in St. Augustine and the surrounding counties. A licensed daycare facility was established in addition to an accredited public high school program.
Bennett first learned about the program while dropping off food for the group through his other charitable endeavor heading up the Epic-Cure, a charity that collects food and donations to purchase food from local businesses and distributes it to the needy in the community. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Bennett’s work with the group has ramped up with numerous drives already held and continuing into the future.
While inside St. Gerard’s headquarters, Bennett said he was approached by one staff member who asked him if he would consider leading cooking classes for the young women.
Of course, he would, he told them.
At last week’s session, Bennett continued instructing Reyes how to lightly pan-fry the chicken pieces in coconut oil over the stovetop, using tongs to turn them every few minutes until golden brown.
The whole meal, he figured, costs probably under 50 cents a serving, with enough food for leftovers. Past meals have included chicken Parmesan, build-a-burger and lasagna.
“This is different than cooking for a restaurant,” Bennett said. “Here, you’re cooking for young families and nurturing them.”