Evelyn Cheatham is not just a chef and foodie, but a portal to a world of cuisine for students in her care

When chef and teacher Evelyn Cheatham won two dinners through a public-radio drawing at high-end Cyrus Restaurant in Healdsburg, she invited her friend Cathy Burgett.|

When chef and teacher Evelyn Cheatham won two dinners through a public-radio drawing at high-end Cyrus Restaurant in Healdsburg, she invited her friend Cathy Burgett. The two professional foodies whooped it up "like Lucy and Ethel," Burgett said, giddy to have someone else pay for the extravagance.

Then they put all their attention on the food -- the flavor, the freshness, the source -- which is the Evelyn Cheatham way of eating.

"Appreciating the little beautiful pleasures around eating and a respect for food are part of Evelyn's DNA," said Burgett.

Cheatham, who can go on and on about "the shining beauty of raw cauliflower," makes reverence for food an essential part of her message to her students. A former instructor at Sonoma County's juvenile probation camp, she now teaches in the culinary program at Santa Rosa Junior College and runs her own Worth Our Weight, or WOW, Program for teenage apprentice cooks.

It's a different concept for teens who grew up thinking dinner is handed to them from a drive-through window.

"A lot of kids reach 17 and have never eaten at a table," said Cheatham, who tries to correct that deprivation by every month taking some of her students out to restaurants.

"Some kids don't know about waiters bringing food to the table. It's an us-and-them thing, right down to the food we eat. I tell them, 'Good food is your right.' "

Cheatham, 53, has been a player in the local foodie scene since moving to Sonoma County in 1987 and going to work for pastry chef Lindsey Shere at her pioneering Downtown Bakery and Creamery in Healdsburg. The public met her in the early 1990s at Tweet's, the downtown Santa Rosa cafe known for Cheatham's unique blend of gourmet and comfort food.

Since then, most of her cooking has been in teaching kitchens, her creations served to students and friends. Yet starting this month, the public has once again been able to get a sample of the Cheatham style.

She moved the WOW program from Windsor to a restaurant site on Third Street in Santa Rosa, adding limited cafe hours. Sunday brunches started two weeks ago; next up will be ethnic dinners on Friday nights.

Her WOW students also will have a pie and turnover booth at the Saturday farmers market in Santa Rosa this summer.

Cheatham's fledgling nonprofit program doesn't receive public funding and students pay no tuition.

"We raise money and we work," said Cheatham, mostly through catering jobs, including a contract to provide lunches for Sonoma Country Day School in Santa Rosa.

Cheatham grew up in San Francisco with a good cook for a mother and a vegetable garden in her city back yard. It's where she developed her sensibility for fresh and seasonal food and the camaraderie of a kitchen.

"I remember playing under the kitchen table while my mother and her sister shelled peas and talked and told jokes in pig Latin."

Cheatham today comfortably inhabits the nexus between the sophisticated world of artisanal gourmet eating and the everday, practical world of struggling to put healthy food on the table -- and toggles back and forth effortlessly. She has cooked for celebrities at an upstate New York meditation retreat favored by stars such as Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid. She's a regular at the international Slow Food conference in Italy. Yet she's down-home enough to put together free Christmas dinners for Sonoma County shelters and other people in need, which she's done for 17 years.

Carrie Brown at Alexander Valley's Jimtown Store, among Cheatham's recruits for those Christmas dinners, calls Cheatham "a Sonoma County treasure and citizen of the world."

Known for her deep laugh, soulful eyes and big heart, Cheatham is modest about her standing in the Wine Country culinary community.

"I'm good at what I do, but there are people far up from me on the scale."

Using food to heal

Maybe, but she's the rare one who believes making food can save broken kids.

For two and a half years, Cheatham taught cooking to incarcerated teens at the juvenile detention camp run by the Sonoma County Probation Department. It was there that she first realized the effect of cooking on angry, unhappy kids.

"When people work with food, they start to become tender. I've had members of opposing gangs stirring tomato sauce in the kitchen."

At the probation camp, she brought in fresh salad greens, and the kids told her it was bad because the lettuce had dirt on it.

"I asked them, 'Where do you think lettuce comes from? A bag?' That's when I knew these kids needed to get close the earth."

Her job at the detention camp ended after a scandal Cheatham prompted. In 2001, she saw an adult counselor kissing a teenage boy whom Cheatham recognized as a former detainee at the camp. She reported the incident to her supervisor, which led to an investigation.

The counselor, charged with 10 counts of having sex with a boy under age 18, was eventually sent to jail for statutory rape. But Cheatham's insistence that the problem was greater than that one incident, and that the county needed to address the bigger issue, cost her the job she loved.

Removed from her teaching position, Cheatham was reassigned to cooking in the kitchen at juvenile hall. Considering her transfer punishment for blowing the whistle on a public institution, she sued the county for unfair treatment. Her supporters demonstrated outside the county courthouse.

Eventually, Cheatham agreed to resign and received $75,000 from the county in an out-of-court settlement.

It's still a big wound.

"We failed those kids. I failed them," she said, her eyes tearing up. What bothers her is that there was abuse going on before she noticed it.

"I feel like I didn't take good enough care of them."

The probation camp experience was "a terrible thing for Evelyn," Burgett said. "But she picked herself up by her bootstraps, dusted off her pants and said, 'Let's go.' "

One good thing came out of those difficult days: Cheatham was able to use a big chunk of her settlement money to again teach kids how to cook.

The WOW program, in its first year, focuses on teenagers and young adults who have had a few detours in life. "You don't have to be in trouble to be in this program," said Cheatham, who prefers to call her students "underserved" rather than "at-risk."

"We once would have called them disadvantaged. They've all had their challenges," she said, generalizing a range from drug problems to emotional issues.

Pastry chef Shere said Cheatham might have made a "wonderful doctor or social worker if she were not involved with food. Indeed, I think that's what she really is. She has a great rapport with troubled young people and has done really important work in helping many of them turn their lives around."

At the WOW kitchen, a young man in a trim red beard and black-and-white checked chef pants finished off a Tuscan white bean entree and talked about the vegetarian restaurant he'll have some day.

"I can't dream of doing anything else," said Todd Thompson, sounding like Cheatham as he talked about "conscious eating" and called cooking an art form.

Youthful detour

If you ask Cheatham what makes her so smart about kids, she says, "I think I didn't lose my memory.

"Even if you have it all, you can still get in trouble," she said, speaking of a childhood detour of her own.

Her mother, she said, "raised me to be Condoleezza Rice, not a cook."

Indeed, Cheatham's mother expected her daughter to go to Radcliffe or Stanford and become a lawyer. Her father, who was not married to her mother -- "They had an affair. I was their love child" -- thought she should get a post office job.

Her fifth-grade teacher told Cheatham she better study hard "or I was going to end up working in a spoon factory. I guess that was because I was the only black person in the class."

But all aspirations were shelved when Cheatham got pregnant at 16 and went to live in a home for unwed mothers.

"My mother told everyone I was studying in Switzerland."

The plan was for Cheatham to give up her baby for adoption and go to college, but she kept the child and became a single mother. Cheatham's daughter is now a teacher living in the Sacramento area.

Cheatham was in her late 20s when she went to California State University at Hayward and graduated with a communications degree. She thought she might become a newspaper reporter, but that changed when her godfather hired her to do office work at his Berkeley Marina restaurant and Cheatham started hanging out in the kitchen.

"Food makes me happy. It's my life. I signed up for this. It is work that is valued. I once thought I wanted to do high-end cooking -- it looks good on your resume. But what makes me happy is stirring polenta over a stove and talking to a friend."

When she's not doing food, she's listening to classical or jazz music. Her biggest indulgence is travel. In April, she took her goddaughter to Paris and introduced her to pain au chocolat.

If she had time, she'd take a volleyball class and do that after work. But most nights she goes to her small rented house in the Healdsburg countryside, throws the ball for her black Labrador, Zora Neale, and makes some steamed vegetables. Whatever's fresh, local and came with dirt attached.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Swartz at 521-5284 or susan.swartz@pressdemocrat.com

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