Cooking Part of Wellness Center's Popular Community Classes

Mercedes Varela-Mendez, center, provides instructions to the students who take her cooking classes, which are open to the community.
By Robert C. Jones, Jr.

Mercedes Varela-Mendez, center, provides instructions to the students who take her cooking classes, which are open to the community.

Cooking Part of Wellness Center's Popular Community Classes

By Robert C. Jones, Jr.
Taught in the center's full kitchen and based on different themes, cooking classes range from Cuban Staples to Classic French.

Still wrapped in their husks, the long ears of corn looked freshly picked. South Miami resident Julian Johnson, a massive man whose large hands made the maize look like baby corn, reached into a container and grabbed one of the ears, stripping off its kernels with a knife. Meanwhile, Johnson’s classmate, Herena Saavedra, minced a few garlic cloves and sliced some green onions.

Now, they were really cooking. Not through trial and error, but using a step-by-step recipe that resulted in a tasty roasted corn salad with tomatoes and pecorino cheese.

That was just one of the three dishes prepared—and sampled—Wednesday evening during one of the popular instructional cooking classes offered at the University of Miami’s Patti and Allan Herbert Wellness Center. Based on different themes ranging from Cuban Staples to Classic French, the classes are taught throughout the semester in the center’s well-equipped kitchen.

The cooking classes are part of the Wellness Center’s community class offerings that are available to everyone, regardless of membership status. Other classes include meditation, mindfulness workshops, emergency care courses, and a number of exercise classes from aquatics and tennis to dance and martial arts. Massage therapy is also offered. The center's education programs affirm the University's commitment to wellness and a well-rounded educational environment. 

Wednesday’s class, called “Summer’s Bounty: Fruits and Vegetables,” was especially appropriate since September is Fruits and Veggies – More Matters Month.

Mercedes Varela-Mendez, a retired UM administrator who worked at the Diabetes Research Institute for 25 years, led the session, walking briskly from team to team to check on the students’ progress and give them pointers and tips when needed, even if it was just advice on how to slice and dice more effectively.

“The sharper the knife, the better,” she told Nicolas Rongione, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, as he sliced limes on a cutting board for the Thai green mango and papaya salad with cilantro dressing he was preparing. “A dull knife can actually hurt you.”

Rongione signed up for the class because he wants to “learn some new recipes and prepare meals the right way” in the recently renovated and expanded kitchen at his home.

For Johnson, the class was a 40th birthday gift from his wife. But to let him tell it, he would have signed up for it anyway. “I love cooking,” he said. “This is my chance to learn some new skills and techniques.” 

Whatever their reasons for taking the class, all of the participants seemed to enjoy it.

“Tonight you’re the chefs, and I’m your sous chef,” said Varela-Mendez, who teaches all of the Wellness Center’s cooking classes, often bringing in fresh ingredients like basil, papaya, and rosemary from her garden.

UM employees and community members from across Miami take her classes. But it’s UM students she enjoys teaching most. “Many of them are away from home for the first time, so I kind of feel sorry for them,” said Varela-Mendez, who, after retiring from the DRI, trained at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Miami to pursue a passion she’s always enjoyed since she was a little girl who would watch her mother prepare meals in the kitchen. “I like knowing that I can expose them to foods from around the world, and they enjoy it. They learn something, they get to taste it, and they like it. There’s nothing more rewarding.”

To learn more, call the Wellness Center at 305-284-5433.