Using local foods, a Juneau middle school teacher demystifies cooking for kids

Students in Chris Heidemann’s outdoor life skills class enjoys smoked salmon on May 20, 2019. The class smoked the salmon the week before. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

For kids who’ve never cooked, smoking their own salmon might seem out of reach. But a teacher at Juneau’s Floyd Dryden Middle School wants his students to know it’s just another life skill they can master — and shows them how to do it.

It’s the last week of school before summer break, and things are pretty laid back at FDMS — at least in room 204, where the students are enjoying snacks and a nature documentary. It’s pretty standard end-of-year stuff, but that smoked salmon wasn’t bought at the store. The students smoked it themselves right outside their classroom just a few days before, with the help of their teacher, Chris Heidemann.

Heidemann teaches hunter education and outdoor life skills classes, which he says mostly focus on preparing food. The smokehouse they use is easily built. Often he’ll have the students construct it, using plans he found online. He says the whole thing comes together in about three hours with $200 worth of materials.

Inside, his classroom is full of more gadgets.

“I have six functioning kitchens, set up with stoves, KitchenAids, microwaves, food processors, everything you’d need. Sinks for doing dishes,” Heidemann said.

Chris Heidemann checks on the final batch of salmon on May 17, 2019. He came to school at 4:30 that morning to light the fire in the smokehouse. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

Heidemann’s goal is to demystify cooking for his students. Over the years he’s taught the class, he says, he’s learned to start with the basics. Even boiling water on the stove can be intimidating for a first-time cook. So Heidemann says that’s where they start.

His class cooks pretty much every week. Over the course of the semester, they work up to more complicated recipes and projects, like the fish smoking.

Most families contribute a $25 class fee, but Heidemann says that’s just a request, and no one is turned away if they can’t pay. Some projects are funded by specific grants that the Juneau School District helps him find.

Fish smoking is one of them. That project’s been supported by a state program called Nutritional Alaskan Foods in Schools, which aims to bring more local foods to students.

Chris Heidemann says this smokehouse, pictured here on May 17, 2019, took around three hours and $200 worth of materials to build. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

Heidemann has plenty of dreams for the class. He’d love to do more foraging and work with local game meat, like deer.

“Just being able to be even more local with the foods that we use,” he said. “Maybe even growing something, but that could be years in the future with how things are developing right now.”

The state grant that supports Heidemann’s fish smoking was last funded in 2015. That’s been enough to keep his classes smoking salmon since then. The district estimates that money will run out after next school year.