Restaurateur Aneesa Waheed cooks up life lessons and Moroccan food for Culinary Arts students

The warm fragrance of paprika, cumin, coriander and turmeric filled the culinary arts room in the high school on October 11.

The spice blend, called ras el hanout in Arabic, which translates to “head of the shop,” is a staple of Moroccan cooking. Each blend is unique to the restaurant, family or company that makes it, and this particular blend was crafted by Aneesa Waheed, chef and owner of Tara Kitchen. Waheed visited the Beginning Culinary Arts class for a cooking demonstration of chicken tagine with preserved lemon and green olives.

“Food is such a great way to experience a different country. We might not be able to go there, but if you can eat the food, it brings us closer,” Waheed said.

Waheed invited students to prepare the dish alongside her as she shared some of the history of Moroccan cuisine and her experience of finding a career in cooking. The demonstration ended with a lunchtime tasting of the freshly made tagine.

“I actually want to try more of Moroccan food and cuisine. It was very delicious,” ninth grader Antwann Allen said. “It was my first time ever having it at all.”

Waheed, a Schenectady High School graduate whose career began in graphic design and technology, opened Tara Kitchen in Schenectady in 2012 and, since then, opened additional locations in Troy and Albany. She recently published a cookbook and is set to open another restaurant in New York City.

“When I asked her about it, there’s a lot of careers she went through,” Antwann said. “You don’t have to decide what you want to be and focus on that right now. You can search around and find what career you want to do.”

“Don’t be stagnant. Keep moving. Keep trying to do new things. Keep talking to people, reading books, going to places and exploring. Having not done a lot of that stuff, I wouldn’t have found this,” Waheed said of her career path and discovery of a passion for cooking.

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High school teachers Leah Werther, English, and Heather O’Keefe, Culinary Arts, organized the guest lesson.

“It’s wonderful for students to have this experience and learn from a guest because the last two years, we weren’t able to do that,” O’Keefe said. “Along with learning about some of the history and geography of Morocco, students were able to review protocols for handling food.”

Werther is serving this year as a teacher on a special assignment in support of the district’s Strategic Plan for Equity. This position is made possible by federal relief funds (ARP-ESSER) designed to support students and schools. In addition to this collaboration with the Culinary Arts program, Werther is partnering with high school teachers to design curriculum and review units of instruction through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion. 

“The federal funds that Niskayuna received have been critical in supporting students throughout the pandemic and as we continue to address unfinished learning,” said Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Marie Digirolamo. “Funds are being used to provide enhanced academic support; social and emotional support; professional development for faculty and staff; and strategic investments in curriculum, materials and equipment.”

Werther is planning additional learning opportunities connecting students with special guests like authors and local artists. She is organizing a writer-in-residence program in April that will feature Brendan Kiely, New York Times bestselling co-author of “All American Boys.”