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. 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.