Chefs in the making
Cooking schools help teens build culinary skills and confidence.
The current obsession of elevating chefs to rock-star status has made it easy for cooking schools to attract teenage students who want to learn to cook or who might be considering the field as a career. But to keep them focused for two or more hours requires savvy adult guidance.
"Today's kids know what they want, and they go after it with determination," says Tina Krinsky of the Julian Krinsky School of Cooking. "The Food Network, recipe websites, magazines, and an array of innovative cookbooks all play an important role in their decision-making process."
What teens seek from cooking school classes is the type of culinary knowledge and information that will help them realize their dream. Jill Prescott of Jill Prescott's Ecole de Cuisine sums this up simply as "experiencing the miracle of creating."
Many students see cooking as providing a creative outlet, instant gratification, and, if done well, tasty food.
At Jill Prescott's, it can be as easy as making the perfect omelet or sautéing vegetables. Students learn that when they follow the rules, master the techniques of cooking, and understand some of the chemistry of food, they experience success. When that happens, the kitchen erupts with expressions of joy: The students have taken a glob of dough, kneaded and shaped it, and turned it into a beautiful and delicious pastry.
Learning to use piping bags, balancing the flavors of a stew, and filling the room with the seductive aromas of baking bread all bring about instant gratification. To highlight the moment, there are lots of smiles and clapping and look-what-I've-just-done remarks.
"This is especially significant when all these experiences are presented structurally, rounded off with some relevant culinary information that they can always apply," Ms. Prescott says. "At that moment, a miracle occurs. A light bulb goes on in the teenager's head, and they leave class empowered, proud, like rock stars, quick to share their new talent with family and friends."
At Torte Knox, where Sheelah Kaye Stepkin conducts summer classes for teenagers, she identifies this classroom experience as a memory-making moment.
One day she found herself facing a group of bored, restless teenage students.
So Ms. Stepkin began telling them a dramatic story about the dumplings they were going to prepare. It was an emotional tale about a 4-day-old Korean girl who was gambled away in a poker game, then at 14 was sold to a silk factory, and at 18 to a Korean man living in America. What freed this young woman from her bondage was her skill at preparing mandoo (a Korean dumpling of minced meat and vegetables wrapped in thin dough).
The students were riveted by her story, and when she finished, they had many questions about the woman and her dumplings. They begged to learn more.
"It is together – the food and the moment – that makes eating special," Stepkin says. "For me, my special dining experience was when I had my first mandoo. The dumplings and this young woman's story became for me a very special memory-making moment."
When she mentioned this to the students, they shared examples of their own memory-making moments. This new understanding brought a complete turnabout in their attitude. They wanted to learn to dice, sauté, and deep-fry correctly. And they carefully listened to what Stepkin said, because she had charmed them with her knowledge and story.
Teaching the students recipes and cooking tips was easy after that, because she had engaged them on their level.
Joe Randall, of Chef Joe Randall's Cooking School, believes that fully engaging students is necessary for classroom success.
His summer 2008 culinary day camp for African-American teenagers, which began as an experiment, attracted nearly 100 young men.
"No doubt some of the teenagers were brought to the camp because of their parents. But many more came because of their own interest in learning about food. My responsibility was to build on this interest in an engaging way," he says.
At the Julian Krinsky Camp and Programs, the cooking program for teenagers is a little different because it's aimed at introducing and connecting teens to the food industry in general.
Since the program runs three weeks, students have enough time to experience a broad range of activities. Among them are trips to markets, where they are taught to shop smartly and read labels for content; conversations with respected local restaurateurs and chefs, whom they are encouraged to question about the business; and hands-on cooking classes from a professional staff who teaches them to create delicious and nutritious meals from scratch.
When the three-week saturation program is completed, the teens prepare all the food for a gala banquet for the whole camp to enjoy.
The staff's mission is to offer students a new appreciation of food and the background to achieve what Simon Solis-Cohen achieved after taking the cooking program: an opportunity to work in the industry. In Simon's case, it was a part-time job at the prestigious Osteria restaurant in Philadelphia.
Mrs. Jeneen Masih, whose 13-year-old daughter, Beatrice, took a culinary program at the Snowvillage Inn, sums up the results of her teenager's experience: "Beatrice's training at Snowvillage reinforced skills that she already had, which added to her confidence, while at the same time pushing her to grow in an amazing atmosphere under the guidance of a world-class chef."
While there, Beatrice worked side by side with executive chef Matthew Mitchell, prepping some of her favorite foods for the evening meal. The experience was a joy because the teenager was able to polish the cooking skills she had learned at home in a professional and enjoyable setting.
For her, it will always be a special memory-making moment.