Pages Navigation Menu

Where Minds Matter

The Kitchen As Classroom

The Kitchen As Classroom

� Kathy Sena 2003

Maybe it’s the Emeril influence — or the kick first graders seem to get out of watching the Iron Chef unveil the “special ingredient of the day” when it’s (ugh) live eel, but today’’s junior chefs are eagerly “kicking it up a notch” in cooking classes designed just for them.

And we’re not talking about the recipes many of us made in junior high home-ec class. (Remember stirring together fried Chinese noodles, peanut butter and chocolate to make Ting-a-Lings?) Today’s 7-to-12-year-old chefs-in-training listen for the “popping” sound as they boil fresh cranberries to make Watch ‘Em Pop Cranberry Sauce. They tie fragrant spices in cheesecloth bags to make Hot Spiced Cider. They chop pecans and juggle measuring spoons to whip up a gooey Praline Pumpkin Pie that would bring Emeril to tears. They even wield pastry bags full of royal icing to create their very own gingerbread houses.

See a trend here? Yep, holidays rule in these kitchens, with class schedules that follow the calendar. Valentine’s Day classes, for instance, feature not only heart-shaped goodies galore, but also a promise to teach kids how to make a romantic Valentine dinner for mom and dad. (Yes, the instructors even promise to stress that doing the dishes is part of the deal.)

Classes are held everywhere from the YMCA to local parks-and-rec clubhouses to upscale grocery stores such as Bristol Farms in Manhattan Beach, California, with its own classroom kitchen.


� Kathy Sena 2003


Of course, the kitchen can be a dangerous place. So safe knife handling, respect for huge pots of boiling water and attention to proper kitchen hygiene are a top priority, says Bristol Farms cooking instructor Michelle Moore. Her instruction, “If you lick your fingers or put your finger up your nose, go wash your hands again,” brings laughs from the kids — and creates a new line at the sink.

Learning how professional chefs go about their tasks makes an impression on students, says Moore. Within the first 10 minutes, her students know the meaning of a well-known phrase in restaurant kitchens: “Hot! Behind!” Translation: “Danger! I’m coming up behind you and I’m carrying a hot pan!”

“They’re learning life skills,” says Moore, who reminds kids to walk with knives held close to the body and pointed down and to lift pot lids away from them so as not to send hot steam into their faces. And there’s something about taking a class from a professional chef, in a professional kitchen, that makes learning all those “kitchen rules” a lot more fun — and makes kids more attentive than they might be at home, she adds.


In fact, holding his students’ attention is a piece of cake for pastry chef Brian Bailey of The Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena, California. The 12 kids in Bailey’s Gingerbread House class, looking quite professional in their white aprons and tall chef hats, focus intently while applying candy canes and royal-icing icicles to their creations. They focus so well, in fact, that a visit from Santa Claus draws only polite hellos and smiles from the students, who are anxious to get back to work.

Kids’ math and reading skills get a good workout in cooking classes, too, says Moore. She breaks the students into small groups, with one child in charge of reading the recipe and others tasked with measuring spices, flour, etc. There’s much chatter about half cups, quarter cups, teaspoons and tablespoons — along with the inevitable mix-up here and there. But even the occasional kitchen mishap is a good opportunity, Moore notes. “We learn from our mistakes,” she says. “We talk about them.”

New discoveries await instructors with each class, too. Even after eight years on the job, Moore says she still learns much from her young students and their always-original observations. A current favorite student quote: “Cinnamon smells like rotten feet!”


� Kathy Sena 2003


Denise Crandall of Manhattan Beach, California says she can’t wait to exact just a bit of motherly revenge the first time her two boys cook the family dinner. “I’m going to say ‘Ewwww, I don’t like this. This tastes yucky. The salad the beans are touching!’” she laughs.

But getting over the “yuckies” is all part of the process when kids find that food tastes better — and seems a bit less mysterious — when they make it themselves. One of the benefits of these classes, to many parents’ delight, is that kids become willing to try foods they’d never touch at home.

“I’m not sure about pecans,” says one 8-year-old as he carefully chops the nuts at Bristol Farms’ “Turkey Day!” class. “But I know whatever I make here is gonna be good.”

— Kathy Sena is a Manhattan Beach-based writer and the mother of a 7-year-old Iron Chef fan who makes a mean Praline Pumpkin Pie.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *