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Reminiscing Adds Flavor To ‘Little Chefs’ Reunion
Little Chefs founder Patsy Laws, third from left, smiles as she poses with several members of the program she oversaw at El Portal Middle School, the participants gathering recently for a reunion in Escalon. From left, Salvador Toscano, Joe Coelho, Patsy Laws, Laura (Toscano) Cardenas, Christine Farinelli, Christopher Wikstrom, Aaron Santos, Hector Toscano. Marg Jackson/The Times

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, laughter was in the air and a spirit of camaraderie could be felt, as several past participants of the Little Chefs program at El Portal Middle School joined in for a reunion.

The luncheon reunion was staged at the Community Center Park pavilion in Escalon on Aug. 5, and attendees had the opportunity to reconnect with Patsy Laws, who started the program for students. It was a way, Laws said, to reach students who often didn’t ‘fit’ in to other activities on campus, and gave them a home. The Little Chefs learned baking skills, catered lunches, did some cooking and event planning, and more.

Those attending the reunion came from far and wide and enjoyed the chance to reminisce about the program they were in more than 30 years ago.

Laws, who lives in Modesto, welcomed former students back with a hug and a smile, there were pictures brought out to spark some memories and one attendee even brought a special trophy he received one year, placing it on the picnic table for all to see.

Along with Laws, program participants attending included siblings Laura (Toscano) Cardenas of Patterson, Salvador Toscano of Davis, and Hector Toscano of Vacaville; Joe Coelho of Escalon, Christine Farinelli of Escalon, Christopher Wikstrom of Texas, Aaron Santos of Oakdale and Guillermina Pantjoa of Escalon. Several attendees also had family members attending the event.

“Patty was the most amazing person, she taught me how to cook and how to measure things, and just simple things like making Jell-o; my mom never baked and I love to bake and it’s all thanks to Patty,” Pantoja said.

Christopher Wikstrom brought his trophy, one he earned in either sixth or seventh grade, and said it is something he felt the need to keep through the years.

“Every year there was someone that was chosen as the outstanding Little Chef and I got it that year, and I’ve hung on to it, I’m kind of a pack rat,” he said.

A 1991 graduate, finishing up his senior year in Oakdale, Wikstrom said the program made a big impression on him.

“It’s such an integral part of my childhood,” he explained, agreeing with the description of ‘family’ when it came to the group. “We just kind of kept in touch.”

Christine Farinelli was part of the planning committee to host the Little Chefs gathering.

“For the reunion of everybody and the great memories,” Farinelli said of what she enjoyed the most, “and just being together because life happens and to reconnect with everybody again brings joy.”

Joe Coelho, who did get into catering and worked in the food industry for a time, noted that Laws was very good at bringing kids together that needed a little extra care when they got to the tough middle school level.

“We would do all kinds of activities, we put on enchilada dinners, we would make lunches for the teachers, we would get together and do all kinds of stuff and we became a community,” Coelho said. “Some of us were the outcasts of the school but, yet, we found a niche and we did good.”

Coelho said they had a lot of fun but also learned a lot about responsibility and respect from Laws.

A 1990 graduate, Laura (Toscano) Cardenas was the first of the three Toscano siblings to get involved in the program.

“All the get togethers we had, all the baking that we did, Pat really encouraged us,” Cardenas said. “It was a lot of fun.”

Taking some time to look over photos and reminisce recently at the Little Chefs reunion were, from left, Valerie Bunch-Roberts, Patsy Laws, Chistopher Wikstrom and Aaron Santos. Valerie is Patsy’s daughter and helped out with the Little Chefs program. Marg Jackson/The Times
Guillermina Pantoja of Escalon, right, shares a smile with Little Chefs program leader Patsy Laws, arriving a little late for the recent reunion but enjoying the chance to catch up with her mentor. Marg Jackson/The Times