Chef Brad Nieves of the Nite Owl serves up more than just homestyle fare. Once each quarter, he offers a mixed plate of kitchen skills and wisdom to eighth-graders at Columbia Falls Junior High.
Nieves has donated some of his days off to the junior high Family Consumer Sciences class for two years. Last year, his son was one of Cami Bowler’s students, and mentioned to the teacher that Nieves cooked at the Nite Owl. The volunteering developed from there.
Last year, Nieves taught classes how to make fresh salsa. This year, it was cheesy pan-fried potatoes.
Salsa and potatoes lend themselves well to basic knife skills, which is where Nieves starts off.
“Students are always nervous using knives and don’t have a lot of experience,” Bowler, who is in her 10th year of teaching Family Consumer Sciences, said.
With Nieves’ coaching, students are able to learn cutting techniques and safety before they really start cooking in the following weeks with Bowler.
Recently Nieves taught the eighth-graders how to keep a cutting board still by putting a wet rag under it, how to stay focused in the kitchen, and how to hold a knife correctly and pass it safely to someone else. He then demonstrated how to cook the potato recipe before sending the students to their own kitchen stations.
Nieves also chatted with the kids and answered their questions about the restaurant industry.
Nieves, 36, also told his own story about getting involved in cooking. He’s from California, but has been in Columbia Falls since 1995. Twelve years ago, he said, he got out of prison after having been addicted to drugs and amphetamines since he was young. After prison, he spent all his time researching food – and cooking for girls.
“It’s a great way to bridge the gap between people,” he hinted to the students.
He started as a dishwasher at the Nite Owl in 2005, was cooking two weeks later, and entered management about five years later. The people he works with are terrific, he said.
“They’re just fantastic. You can’t find a better place to work,” he noted.
He likes the Nite Owl so much that he doesn’t want to start his own restaurant.
“I’ve been offered to buy and establish a restaurant, but I just don’t want that headache,” he told the students, noting how hard it can be to run one’s own eatery.
In addition to donating his time to teach the students, Nieves also gave the school some cooking equipment – he donated half the money and the Nite Owl matched him for a set of paring knives.
Despite his generosity, Nieves doesn’t want recognition.
“When I was using (drugs), I took so much from this community. This is my way to give some back,” he said.
He loves working with the eighth graders, and thinks it’s an important age to connect with them.
“Addiction is hard. Peer pressure is hard. You gotta surround yourself by good people,” he remarked. “This age is when I can reach them.”
Nieves observed that the Columbia Falls community is incredibly involved with their youth, which he says is the key to kids’ success.
The junior high students love Nieves’ classes, and he hopes to keep doing them for a long time.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said.