A Kitchen at the Heart of a School

Golestan kids learn about the world through food

By Anna Mindess | Illustrations by Margo Rivera-Weiss

Mounds of fragrant green parsley, cilantro, dill, and chives sit atop ten colorful placemats in front of ten children. The six-to-12 year olds chop the herbs just like professional chefs do—their fingers holding the herbs are carefully tucked back out of harm’s way. The insistent tap, tap, tap of their chopping supplies background percussion to the musical lilt of their cooking teacher’s voice.

We’re looking in on the twice-weekly after-school cooking class at Berkeley’s Golestan, the first Persian language immersion preschool in the United States, established in 2008.

Teacher Hanif Sadr, a tall, animated man, keeps up a steady patter of encouragement. “What do you think we are going to make today with all these herbs?” he asks in Persian. The children, most of whom have at least one parent who speaks Persian at home, respond eagerly, and after a couple of guesses, one little boy excitedly shouts out the right answer: “Kuku sabzi!

Golestan means “flower garden” in Persian, and indeed, the cooking class is set up under a large white tent in the school’s garden. The inviting, cozy space is attractively festooned with sparkly lights, fresh flowers, and a pomegranate mosaic. The children are gathered around a table covered with a cheery yellow tablecloth and set with an array of stainless steel bowls. These young cooks, all former students of the preschool, have moved on to various English-speaking schools. Coming back for Golestan’s after-school classes and summer camp reconnects them with this nurturing place and strengthens their ties to the language and culture.

Studies in World Culture

Culture (not just Iranian culture) is woven into the fabric of Golestan’s daily routine, where days are filled with storytelling, music, art, science, movement, outdoor play, and gardening. Food appears as a frequent theme, and it’s often used for braiding together disparate threads of the two- to five-year olds’ curriculum. Through the medium of cooking, kids get hands-on opportunities to learn about subjects like earth, air, animals, seasons, and other cultures. For example, when a class is studying “air,” the children might explore its role in whipping cream or egg whites for meringue, or they witness the power of steam to make dough rise. The springtime unit explores life in the soil: animals, insects, and plants. Today’s after-school cooking class features two Persian dishes—kuku sabzi, an herb frittata, and mast-o-laboo, beets mixed with herbs and yogurt—as examples of this soil focus.

School Lunch Beats Out Meals at Home

At Golestan, children and teachers eat meals together, family-style, and participate in mealtime rituals, such as setting and clearing the table. All meals are made in the Golestan kitchen, which is centrally situated so that enticing aromas wafting from food preparations greet the children as they arrive at school. Every dish is made in-house, including breads and crackers. All ingredients in the carefully balanced lunches are gluten-free, nut-free, organic, and local. Bananas, plus a few items for the “sociocultural meals” on Fridays, are the exceptions to local sourcing.

Each week, the whole school studies a different world culture. Cooking illuminates the cultural learning with activities like making pasta from scratch, assembling sushi with bamboo mats, or stuffing grape leaves. The menu for each Friday’s special lunch highlights the week’s study, so when the children learn about Thailand, coconut chicken curry, rice, and papaya salad might be on the menu. For Morocco, it’s lamb tagine with dried fruits and chickpeas, couscous, eggplant-tomato salad, and cucumber-mint salad. When studying Ethiopian culture, they’ll have injera (a spongy flatbread) with yellow lentils, braised collard greens, braised cabbage and carrots, and green salad. At least once each week, the lunchtime menu features a traditional Iranian dish like kotlets (fried breaded meat patties), kababs, or stew. If this sounds like cuisine that might be geared more toward sophisticated eaters, that is the point. The school aims to broaden their young charges’ palates as well as their minds.

Cofounder and executive director Yalda Modabber confesses with a hint of a smile that Golestan parents report hearing their children complain that the food at home isn’t as good as what they get at school, but she adds that parents really appreciate how their children happily eat salads and vegetables every day. “We grow kale in our garden, but the children love nibbling the baby kale so much that it never gets to grow mature leaves that make it to the kitchen.”

Building Confidence

Back in the tent, the herb chopping continues as Sadr reminds the youngsters, “If you hold a knife, you must look at what you are doing.” Two teachers, Yassi and Mamak, serve as assistants, especially with the youngest children, who are also using real metal knives. “Learning how to use real knives safely gives them confidence,” says associate director Maryam Atai, who also interprets for me during my visit. “Cooking is such a hands-on, engaging activity. It calms and focuses even the more rambunctious among them.”

After the mountain of herbs is finally chopped and deposited in one giant bowl, the oldest kids crack and whip up the eggs. Sadr helps them mix the chopped herbs and other ingredients into the eggs. They pour the thick green mixture into a large glass pan, which Sadr whisks away to the school’s massive oven. The kuku will be baked and ready to eat before the end of class.

Meanwhile the children prepare mast–o-laboo. Chopping cooked red and yellow beets (plus more herbs), they add this to yogurt in their bowls and the yogurt turns an exciting electric pink. On tasting their creations, the children adjust the seasonings to suit their own palates: a little more salt for one, an extra squeeze of lemon juice for another.

The philosophy behind Golestan’s educational approach combines elements from the Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia methods. It emphasizes natural rhythms and materials, imagination, and compassion.

Room to Grow

The one question on the minds of most parents of Golestan’s preschoolers is, “Where can my child go after such a rich cultural experience?” Finally, Yalda Modabber has an answer for them: Golestan is moving this fall to a larger facility (the former St. Jerome’s Catholic School in Kensington) where they will gradually add primary grades following a multi-lingual, multicultural program that integrates the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum with Golestan’s established pedagogy. Their new farm will be large enough to produce much of the food for the kitchen. One of the most important changes Modabber is making during renovation of the Kensington site is to move the kitchen from its location in the school’s basement up to the ground level with the classrooms and farm. There, it can again be “the heart of our school.”


Read more about Golestan’s teacher Hanif Sadr and his recipe for kuku sabzi.

Anna Mindess writes about food, culture, travel, and immigrants’ stories for AFAR, Fodors, KQED Bay Area Bites, Berkeleyside, and Oakland Magazine. She also works as a sign language interpreter. See her visual take on the world on Instagram @annamindess.
Find her stories at annamindess.contently.com.