Middle school ‘cultivating a culture of cooking’ with Thaibilly Kitchen

by Anna Patrick, Charleston Gazette

“You guys ready to start chopping?”

Raj Pongsugree asks her cooking class. The eager eyes of Jamie Coleman, Zahra Khan and Julia Carriger look back at their instructor as plates of ingredients color a large white counter top in the center of the kitchen.


Photo by Anna Patrick, Charleston Gazette

On a recent Wednesday morning, Pongsugree is leading the first cooking class in a brand new middle school program for three of the four seventh graders enrolled in Mountaineer Montessori Middle School.

“So today, in honor of Chinese New Year, we’re going to do long noodles. You don’t cut them when you cook them. They are supposed to stay long in representation of life.”

“Long life,” Jamie chimes in.

“Right. Long noodles, long life,” Pongsugree responds.

She begins holding up ingredients. “It’s going to be a noodle stir fry with chives, a couple pieces of carrots and this,” she tells the students as she holds up a nondescript, shriveled black object. “It looks like seaweed but it’s not. This is called black fungus.”

Instead of receiving boos or signs of disgust, the three 12-year-olds look impressed.

Photo by Anna Patrick, Charleston Gazette

Photo by Anna Patrick, Charleston Gazette

Someone says, “That’s amazing.”

“It’s really textural and very chewy.” Pongsugree explains that in some Asian countries the fungus is used as a meat replacement, but lacks protein.

Quickly the trio are chatting and chopping as Pongsugree makes her rounds to ensure that Jamie is cutting the tofu thin enough for veggie dumplings, which are also on the menu. Zahra carefully chops up the slimly black fungi and Julia takes on the carrots.

Student Jasmine Phillips was absent that day.

In addition to catering, serving authentic Thai cuisine at The Empty Glass on Charleston’s East End every Tuesday, and fixing food at festivals, Thaibilly Kitchen offers a variety of cooking classes.

Co-owners of Thaibilly, Pongsugree and her husband, Michael Seeburger, instruct the classes, which are normally held at the Manna Meal kitchen located at St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Suzanne Sanders, lead guide for Mountaineer Montessori’s adolescent program, said she was looking for a way to offer an enjoyable, hands-on learning experience for the students to get acquainted with a variety of cuisines and ingredients.



Photo by Anna Patrick, Charleston Gazette

Photo by Anna Patrick, Charleston Gazette

“I just thought it would a perfect pairing,” Sanders said. “She’s bringing in all kinds of new things that they are discovering.”

Pongsugree started the cooking classes in January by teaching the students how to make sushi. She will teach a class at the Charleston school one Wednesday of every month until the end of the school year.

“I like it because I really enjoy trying new foods. Any new food is really, really super exciting for me,” Julia said. “I also think that it is a really great experience because then you are going to be able to get more freedom and you are going to be able to cook for yourself.”

Even when Pongsugree is not around to teach an exotic dish, the students always cook together on Wednesdays.

“One of the things in this program is for them to start learning how to do adult-like things,” Sanders said.

“Every Wednesday of every week, two of the students choose something that they would like to cook for the whole group. They give me a list, and they have to stay within a budget. We go out and get things and they are responsible for cooking for the whole group. The other two clean, and, then, the next week we switch.”

After the Wednesday meal is prepared the students sit down family style with Sanders and fellow instructor Rachel Scarpelli to enjoy their meal.

Before the group enjoyed their Chinese New Year meal, Pongsugree taught the girls how eat with chop sticks. She said she’s already planning to fix an Irish meal in March to honor St. Patrick’s Day.

“She gives us a little history along with each food,” Julia said. “She’s a really good teacher and she’s really fun.”

Photo by Anna Patrick, Charleston Gazette

Photo by Anna Patrick, Charleston Gazette

“We’ve gotten rave, rave reviews from the students and the parents,” Sanders said. “They’re being exposed to foods that they might not have been exposed to before … . What we can do is put that into our curriculum.”

The girls were happy to share some of Pongsugree’s teachings.

“I learned that not all fungus is bad,” Jamie said.

Julia added, “To make black fungus edible you have to soak it in water.”

“Never lift the knife from the cutting board,” Zahra said.

And reciting Pongsugree’s words from earlier on how to properly fill a dumpling, Zahra said, “Everything in moderation.” Call Pongsugree at 304-206-4527 to learn more about Thaibilly Kitchen’s cooking class and catering offerings.

Reach Anna Patrick at anna.patrick@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4881.

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