It’s a Sunday afternoon, and the kitchen of this Forest Park cooking school is bustling. Ten students surround a high butcher-block workstation and a stainless-steel stove top and oven.
Siri Anderson and Darby Clinard, the “shrimp girls” of the day, yank the tails off uncooked shrimp. Finbar Boyle grates carrots and Gordon Brinkman grates ginger. Siobhan Doherty and Julia Bankes apply all their muscle to press cloves of garlic. Tiernaur Anderson measures soy sauce; Alli Bernard and Jack and Henry Belcaster whisk eggs.
Only chef/instructor Denise Norton is older than 10. Norton is teaching “Trip to China,” one of Flavour Cooking School’s classes for kids.
Over an hour and 45 minutes, the students, ages 6 to 10, learn about new foods, such as Napa cabbage, fresh ginger root and mirin, a rice wine vinegar. They wash their hands several times, since they’re also learning about sanitary kitchen habits. They stir fry vegetables, smash peanuts and roll wontons.
Some of the kids seem as likely to spend an hour watching the Food Network as the Cartoon Network. Others have never had Chinese food and aren’t too sure they’ll like kung pao chicken.
Whatever the menu, cooking classes offer kids a chance to learn about nutrition, kitchen safety, math, other cultures and new foods, all while having fun and eating. Some kids even discover they like vegetables.
But Flavour is just one of several cooking schools in the Chicago area that offers kids’ classes. Others include Sur La Table (in Chicago and Naperville) and Chopping Block (two Chicago locations). A handful of Whole Foods Market locations invite kids to host cooking-themed birthday parties at the store. Some park districts also offer cooking classes. Typically, the programs are geared toward specific age groups.
It’s a miracle
At Naperville’s Sur La Table, children’s classes ranging from one-time holiday-themed courses to three-day camps regularly fill up, says Allison Johnson, the store’s culinary coordinator.
“[Instructors] try to teach them the actual cooking process. [The children] do everything, up to the burner,” Johnson says.
Cooking is a good way to develop skills such as measuring and following directions. When it comes to doubling recipes, math sneaks in, too. Many instructors will talk about the ingredients used, nutrition or the origin of a recipe.
The classes are a dream to the budding Emeril Lagasses or Julia Childs. Christine Malone, co-owner of Flavour, says she has young “regulars” who stop by the storefront school and kitchen boutique just to chat about recipes. Two of her students, 13-year-old boys, get together on Friday nights to make tapas. Several teen students have their own chef’s knives already.
To appeal to the more devoted young cook, Flavour offers several advanced children’s classes beyond its one-time classes and summer camps.
Cooking classes also can be a less stressful way for children to taste new foods without dinner-table debates at home.
“Almost every class, someone will say, ‘I hate that.’ But since their parents aren’t there, they’ll try it. It’s one of those weird things,” says Sur La Table’s Johnson.
“We have one girl who comes every month, and now she eats strawberries,” says Malone. “Her mother thinks it’s a miracle.”
Look what I made
At Whole Foods Market in Palatine, groups of children can celebrate a birthday by making pizzas and other foods. They shape the dough and add the toppings they want while an adult talks about food groups and healthy eating habits.
“They love the hands-on. We hand them the dough. We tell them to smell it. We tell them about yeast and how it works,” says Elizabeth Boomer, a marketing and community relations specialist with Whole Foods. “We’ve had children make hearts. We’ve had children make triangles. One little boy made a moat.”
While there, kids snack on other healthy things such as veggies and dip or fruit kebabs. “We’re also educating them about different types of foods, what’s good for you,” Boomer says.
Chris Johnson, who teaches cooking to kids at the Mokena and Frankfort park districts, tries to keep things simple and educational.
“Conceivably, if they enjoy it, they’ll make it at home with their families,” Johnson says. Her counterpart, Brenda Kushner, typically starts with a book, followed by a recipe that ties into the story—such as making pasta after reading Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.
“I find preschoolers learn best by doing what is familiar to them. Cooking is an outreach of home … so it’s a safe experience for them,” Kushner says. She says she doesn’t mind when someone refuses to eat their creation. Children should feel comfortable talking about what they like and don’t like.
“It’s OK to say how you feel,” Kushner says.
At the end of Flavour’s “Trip to China” class, the feelings are generally positive. Parents wander in to pick up their children, who greet them with invitations to taste the food. The phrase “Look what I made” echoes through the kitchen.
Oak Park mom Kellyn Marks brought her sons, Henry and Jack Belcaster, 8 and 10, to Flavour’s class because she loves to cook and both boys enjoy helping her.
“They like to see something come out of their hard work,” Marks says.
Finbar Boyle, 6½, of Westchester, wasn’t sure he’d like Chinese food. But after a couple bites of his shrimp fried rice, he is a convert.
“How about that? It has vegetables and everything,” Norton says.
“It’s good and healthy. I could eat it every day for breakfast,” Finbar says with a smile. b