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Holiday Season at Evolve: Our Chefs Bring More Than Food to the Table

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

Thanksgiving and the winter holidays are often associated with special meals and old-fashioned comfort food. The on-site chefs at our residential treatment centers understand this and bring in the holiday cheer by preparing delicious Thanksgiving meals for our teenagers and staff. We’re thankful for our chefs all year round because they bring comfort and warmth into our treatment homes. We’re extra thankful for them during the holidays – and you’ll see why when you read about the amazing dishes they plan to create this year.

First, though, we’ll outline the basics of we approach food at Evolve, starting with the importance of our on-site chefs. Here’s what our Director of Residential Programs, Kelsey (Larson) Schaefer, says about the amazing people who cook for our teens every day:

“As a DBT therapist, I strongly value having our Chefs on all our residential teams. They encourage our clients to develop a schedule and practice balanced eating efforts, which are pivotal factors when trying to achieve effective emotion regulation. I also think the role of the Chef is essential because they have the potential to serve as a role-model figure to our clients who are trying to identify healthier coping skills in an effort to achieve a life worth living.”

We prioritize good food, and it shows.

Our chefs make it all happen, but we start with a unified approach to food that’s part of our integrated treatment model. Here’s how we do it:

Our Food Philosophy

  • Delicious and Nutritious. We serve healthy food that promotes recovery and overall wellbeing. Our teens eat plenty of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean protein. We keep healthy snacks on hand at all times. We do serve dessert – but we default to homemade and healthy, rather than store-bought and prepackaged.
  • Safety First. We accommodate food allergies and dietary restrictions. Our chefs can accomodate kosher, gluten-free, vegetarian, or whatever is needed. They go above and beyond to help our teens feel comfortable and at home.
  • Individually Tailored. When a teenager enters treatment at Evolve, they meet with our chef and outline their food preferences. Our chef will learn about their likes and dislikes and find out what their comfort foods are. They use this information to build a menu that makes everyone feel taken care of – and fills their bellies with great tasting, nutritious food. Our teens may not get their favorite dish at every meal, but they will eat food they love on a regular basis.
  • Weekly Menus. At the beginning of each week, our teens get to preview the menu and opt out of meals they don’t like. They can substitute a sandwich and fruit or salad for a main dish. We go further than that: if they don’t love the main protein at a meal – for example, if salmon is on the menu and they don’t like fish, the chef can usually replace the salmon with something like chicken breast.
  • Cooking Labs. Our chefs regularly facilitate cooking labs in our on-site kitchens. They show our teens easy recipes – no sharps used, all things pre-cut – and everyone works together to prepare a great meal.

Research shows food can have a significant impact on how we feel. A healthy, nutrient-rich diet can improve mood, concentration, focus, and memory. When it comes to mental health, the adage you are what you eat holds true. We also know that on a fundamental level, food can provide a sense of warmth and security. Certain meals can remind us of people that we love, our family traditions, and bring us a sense of comfort.

Parents Want to Know

As we move into the holiday season, we know many parents don’t love the idea of their teen being away from home and missing out on the holiday season. Families often ask our admissions team what the holidays look like at Evolve. A common question they hear this time of year is this one:

“Will my child get to have a Thanksgiving dinner?”

Our answer to this is always the same:

“They will absolutely get a homemade Thanksgiving meal prepared by our on-site chef.”

But that simple sentence doesn’t do our chefs justice, because they truly go to great lengths to make the Thanksgiving meal special. To show you what we mean, we contacted these awesome, top-notch culinary craftspeople to find out exactly what’s on the menu this year – and to learn a little more about why they love cooking for our teens.

Chef Shaun Boles, Evolve Agoura Hills

What do you enjoy about being a chef at Evolve and working with our clients?

“I enjoy meeting kids from different backgrounds as they are always sharing great ideas for new foods I can make for them.”

This year, Shaun plans to make a mini pumpkin pie cheesecake.

Here’s the recipe:

Mini Pumpkin Pie Cheesecake


  • 1 ¼ cup Graham Crackers
  • 3 tbs Brown Sugar
  • 5 tbs Butter, Melted
  • 8 oz Cream Cheese, room temp
  • 1 large Egg
  • ¼ Cup Sugar
  • ¼ Cup Sour cream
  • 1 tsp Vanilla
  • ½ Cup Pumpkin Puree
  • ½ tsp Cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp Ginger
  • ¼ tsp Nutmeg


  1. Preheat oven to 350º F.
  2. Make graham crackers into crumbs and mis with brown sugar and butter.
  3. Evenly distribute between 12 cupcake liners in a muffin tray
  4. Mix together remaining ingredients in a mixer until smooth
  5. Pour evenly into the muffin liners with graham cracker
  6. Bake for 18 – 20 minutes
  7. Remove from over and let cool (2hr – overnight)
  8. Once completely cooled, top with whipped cream and serve

Chef Rodrigo Vasquez, Evolve Lafayette

What do you enjoy about being a chef at Evolve and working with our clients?

One of the things that I enjoy the most is the direct contact with clients being able to listen to them and see what they like and prefer for their meals. I always encourage them to try new ingredients and I enjoy surprising them with new dishes every week. And that is something that I love about this job, the freedom developing menus and being creative with the dishes.”

This year, Rodrigo plans to make spiced sweet potatoes.

Here’s the recipe:

Spiced Sweet Potatoes


  • 4 medium sweet potatoes
  • Kosher salt
  • Fresh ground black pepper
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ginger powder
  • 1/2 tsp fresh ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
  • 3 each clove
  • 1/2 lemon (only peel)


  1. Preheat oven to 450º F.
  2. Wash sweet potatoes and place in a baking tray with foil.
  3. Use a fork to prick the sweet potato all over.
  4. Place the potatoes in the oven and cook until is tender, 45-50 minutes. Check with a fork and stick it in the thickest part of the potato. If there’s no resistance, it’s good to go.
  5. While the sweet potato is cooking, heat up the honey in a pot and add the spices and lemon peel. Stir them until honey boils. Reserve room temperature.
  6. Once potatoes are cooked, let cool down. Then split tops open with a knife and top with the honey.
  7. Season with salt and pepper before serving.

Chef Dominic “Dom” Kern, Evolve Vanalden

What do you enjoy about being a chef at Evolve and working with our clients?

“Knowing that I can have a positive impact on the clients’ lives… if even for a few weeks.”

This year, Chef Dom plans to make an amazing cornbread/sausage dressing.

Here’s the recipe he adapted from Southern Living magazine:

Cornbread Dressing with Sausage and Fennel Recipe


  • 1 Honeycrisp apple, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 6 cups cubed day-old cornbread (about 15 oz.)
  • 2 1/2 cups chicken broth
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons pure maple syrup


  1. Spread cubed cornbread on 2 rimmed baking sheets.
  2. Place in oven and preheat to 400°F. Bake until cornbread is golden brown, about 15 minutes after oven preheats.
  3. Heat a large nonstick skillet over high. Cook sausage, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 6 minutes.
  4. Transfer sausage to a large bowl, reserving drippings in skillet. Add fennel, 1 tablespoon of the butter, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper to skillet.
  5. Reduce heat to medium high; cook, stirring occasionally, until fennel is tender and slightly browned, about 8 minutes.
  6. Add fennel to bowl with sausage
  7. Add onion, celery, garlic, 1 tablespoon of the butter, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper to skillet; cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 12 to 15 minutes.
  8. Add to bowl with fennel and sausage.
  9. Add apple, thyme, and 1 tablespoon of the butter to skillet; cook, stirring often, until apples are slightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes.
  10. Add apple mixture and toasted cornbread to sausage mixture in bowl.
  11. Whisk together chicken broth, eggs, and remaining 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Pour over cornbread mixture in bowl and toss gently to combine.
  12. Let stand 10 minutes.
  13. Grease a 13- x 9-inch baking dish with 1 tablespoon of the butter. Spread cornbread mixture in prepared dish.
  14. Cover with aluminum foil and bake in preheated oven 30 minutes.
  15. Remove foil; dot dressing with remaining 2 tablespoons butter.
  16. Return to oven.
  17. Bake until golden brown, 25 minutes.
  18. Drizzle with maple syrup before serving.

Chef Ken Yacharn, Evolve Woodland Hills

What do you enjoy about being a chef at Evolve and working with our clients?

“I enjoy expanding our clients’ palates and trying new things. Cooking labs are always a great time to loosen up and engage the group mindfully while they create their dinner so that they can take that knowledge home and recreate it themselves to share it with others.”

This year, Ken plans to make a deconstructed turkey pot pie. Yum! Parents, this is a great idea for your leftover turkey.

Here’s the recipe:

Deconstructed Turkey Pot Pie


  • 1 small, diced onion
  • 2 minced garlic cloves
  • 2 carrots shredded
  • 2 stalks celery – small diced
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 3 cups cream
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon fresh or dried thyme
  • 1-2 cups medium diced (or shredded) leftover turkey
  • 3/4 cup peas
  • 1 russet potato – small diced (optional)
  • 1 box puff pastry (I use pepperidge farm brand which will yield approximately 8 quarter squares)
  • 2 Eggs, scrambled with a splash of water (egg wash)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Fresh chopped parsley for garnish


  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  • In a large saucepan melt butter and add oil to prevent butter from burning. Sauté onions, celery, potatoes (if using) and thyme on medium high heat until onions and celery become translucent. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds.
  • Add cream and milk and bring the mixture up to a soft boil stirring occasionally to prevent bottom of the pan from burning. Bring the heat down to a simmer. If sauce is too thin, add more cream, if too thick, add more milk to thin it out.
  • Add turkey and peas to the mixture and cook for an additional 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  • Pull out puff pastry and place onto a dry smooth surface. Score (lightly mark with a knife) surface of puff pastry to make cross hatch. Cut and divide into desired size (I cut into 1/4 pieces).
  • Gently brush egg mixture on top and place onto a sheet pan and bake for approximately 15-20 minutes or until the top of the puff pastry is golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow it to cool for 5 minutes before serving.
  • Spoon sauce mixture into bowls and top each bowl with a puff pastry. Sprinkle fresh parsley and serve immediately.

Chef Angel Garcia, Evole Ojai

What do you enjoy about being a chef at Evolve and working with our clients?

“I love the fact my food brings a smile to their face, even on tough days.”

This year, Angel plans to make a special lemon cheesecake dessert.

Here’s the recipe:

Holiday Lemon Cheesecake

Ingredients (crust):

  • 5 cups gram cracker crumbs
  • 5 tablespoons melted butter
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon salt

Preparation (crust):

  1. Combine ingredients in springform pan
  2. Bake at 375º for ten minutes

Ingredients (filling):

  • 4 blocks or 32 oz room temperature cream cheese
  • 2 cups sugar + 1/2 cup powder sugar
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 4 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 6 eggs
  • 1/2 cup of sour cream

Preparation (filling):

  • Mix ingredients together till smooth
  • Pour into crust
  • Bake in a shallow water bath at 325º for 60-90 minutes
  • Place in refrigerator over night

Chef Cassie Gascon, Evolve Walnut Creek

What do you enjoy about being a chef at Evolve and working with our clients?

“Being a chef at Evolve has allowed me to share my passion with the clients, and teach them that food can be healthy, sustainable and delicious!”

This year, Cassie plans to make a yummy green bean casserole.

Here’s the recipe:

Green Bean Casserole


  • 4 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 12 ounces white button mushrooms
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ¼ cup all purpose flour
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1 t soy sauce
  • ½ t freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ t freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 (6 ounce) cans french’s fried onions, divided
  • 1 ½ pound green beans


  1. Heat the oven to 325º. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 325°F.
  2. Cook the mushrooms. Melt the butter in a large, straight-sided skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
  3. Make the gravy. Sprinkle the flour evenly over the mushroom mixture and stir to combine. Cook until the flour is no longer dry, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the milk, chicken broth, tamari or soy sauce, pepper, and nutmeg and bring to a simmer. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thickened, 3 to 5 minutes.
  4. Add some of the fried onions and green beans. Remove the gravy from the heat. Add the green beans and half a can of the fried onions, and stir to combine. Transfer the green bean mixture to a 9×13-inch baking dish and spread into an even layer.
  5. Top and bake. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 1/2 cans onions. Bake until golden brown and bubbling, around 12 to 15 minutes.
  6. Cool before serving. Let stand 10 minutes before serving. Sauce will thicken as it cools.

Chef Ashli Mercado, Evolve Calabasas

What do you enjoy about being a chef at Evolve and working with our clients?

“What I enjoy most about being a chef here at Evolve, is having the opportunity to participate in the growth of our clients both by providing them with comforting food while being able to develop a supportive relationship.”

This year, Ashli plans to make  vegan crab cakes, which she describes as “an elegant meat alternative to turkey and ham.”

Here’s the recipe:

Vegan Crab Cakes


(makes 1 quart)

  • 6 oz. (drained weight) heart of palm (salad cut) 
  • 8 oz (drained weight) can artichokes (halves)
  • 2 + 2/3 cup celery (small dice)
  • 1 cup carrots, peeled and shredded
  • 1 + 1/3 cup yellow onions (small dice)
  • 1 cup minced garlic
  • 4 cup panko
  • 4 tsp salt
  • 4 cup vegan mayo
  • 2 tsp old bay
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp Garlic Powder


  1. In light oil, sautee celery, carrots, and onions seasoned with salt and pepper.
  2. Once veggies are translucent, sauté garlic until cooked.
  3. Allow veggies to cool.
  4. Strain heart of plans and artichokes well.
  5. Mash with mortar and pestle or with potato masher. Pieces should be appear shredded.
  6. Mix all items together. Continue to mix until soft and moist in texture (panko should no longer be crisp).
  7. Use ice cream scoop to measure out desired serving.
  8. Form into a disc, coat both sides with panko crumb
  9. Fry on low heat with minimal oil until golden.

So, what do you think?

Give you ideas for your Thanksgiving meal?

We hope so.

Now you know that even though your teen is away from home and in treatment this Thanksgiving, they’re going to get an amazing meal on the special day. That begs the question, though:

Can you top our chefs next year?

As you can see, the bar is very, very high!

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