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A recipe for change

Greenspring chef partners with nonprofit on teaching cooking classes to local families

Created date

February 19th, 2018
In a recent class, Executive Chef José Montanez taught participants how to create a fresh tomato sauce, spiced green beans, and pasta salad.

In a recent class, Greenspring Executive Chef José Montanez taught participants how to create a fresh tomato sauce, spiced green beans, and pasta salad.


The dining services staff at Greenspring, an Erickson Living community in Springfield, Va., is dedicated to serving delicious and healthy meal options to community members daily. Eager to share this passion for food with members of the local community, Greenspring Executive Chef José Montanez recently partnered with Real Food for Students (RFFS) to provide families and students with the tools needed to create healthy meal options in their home kitchens.

RFFS is a local nonprofit dedicated to collaborating with school communities to elevate the quality and character of school food; developing and delivering programs that advance literacy in nutrition and health; and engaging students, parents, and schools in building a culture of health that spreads to their homes and communities. Last spring, the nonprofit invited Montanez to address students on the importance of using healthy ingredients in their cooking.

Energized by the presentation, he offered to continue sharing his knowledge to help the local community.

Leading by example

“A few months after my first project with RFFS, Mary Porter, the director of the program, asked if I would teach a series of cooking classes for families that receive some of their food from the local food bank.”

Montanez quickly agreed.

“What RFFS learned is that some of the ingredients provided by the food banks, such as quinoa, coconut oil, honey, and canned goods, are unfamiliar to the families receiving them,” says Montanez. “The classes are designed to help these families learn how to use these ingredients to complement the food they are already cooking. For example, I demonstrate how honey can be used to sweeten a sauce rather than sugar.”

This past fall, Montanez led a series of four classes for the parents of students at Hybla Valley Elementary School, located less than ten miles from Greenspring.

“The experience has been amazing,” he says. “My number one goal is sharing knowledge without overwhelming families.”

Montanez does not supply recipes but encourages creativity when it comes to meal planning.

“I stress how it is possible to make a wonderful dinner without opening a cookbook or spending a lot of money,” he says. “I firmly believe that if I were to teach people unfamiliar recipes, the lessons would be lost. Instead, I tell the class participants to focus on their own home cooking and concentrate on what tastes good to them.”

The class is conducted around a table as Montanez prepares a series of dishes utilizing many items participants receive from the food bank.

“I encourage everyone to speak up and ask questions,” he says. “As the students get more comfortable, I engage them in the cooking process, asking for help washing and chopping vegetables or mixing items together.”

Some of Montanez’s most recent culinary creations include a tomato sauce made from canned tomatoes, onions, garlic, and honey, and a simple pasta salad made with red peppers, onions, parsley, and salt and pepper.

“Everyone is enjoying the classes, motivated, and excited to learn a new way to understand food,” says Montanez.

Preparing the next generation

In addition to teaching local parents, Montanez enjoys working with students eager to learn more about the creation of healthy meal options. 

In March, he will share his insight at the Real Food for Kids 2018 Culinary Challenge and Wellness Expo at Hayfield Secondary School. 

Guests at the expo will enjoy tasting samples from 14 student culinary teams, each competing for the opportunity to create a new menu item on the Fairfax County Public School lunch menu.

Throughout the expo Montanez will demonstrate many of his quick and healthy cooking ideas.

“Any time you can give back to your community, you have the opportunity to change a life,” he says. “I believe teaching people how to cook healthy and delicious meals is knowledge that will positively impact families for years to come.”