Inspired by culinary superstars like Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters, yuppies have flocked to gourmet cooking classes in recent years.Now the children of these gourmets are following in their parents' footsteps, learning to whip up everything from basic soups to trendy California-style pizza.
"Heather is what you would call heavy into the classes," said Diana Goldberg, whose 8-year-old daughter has taken cooking lessons at Le Kookery in Sherman Oaks since age 5. Goldberg ticked off the benefits: "She comes home and helps more in the kitchen. She's more independent and confident about meal preparation, and has even made things--like a sailboat cake for Father's Day--that I never have."
At Let's Get Cookin'--a combination gourmet store and cooking school in Westlake Village--owner Phyllis Vaccarelli says enrollment in her "Little Gourmet" series has never been higher. Children's cooking classes there have been expanded to include two sessions of two hours each, offered once a month.
Christmas Class Filled
"A lot of the kids keep coming back for more, and really seem to love it," Vaccarelli said. The Christmas class that will be offered at the store in mid-December already is filled, and has a waiting list of 10 children.
Most cooking classes have a maximum of 12 to 15 children per session and cost about $15 a lesson. Girls are not always in the majority. For example, a head count showed seven boys and six girls at a recent class at Let's Get Cookin'.
"I think it's important for kids to learn how to cook, especially boys," said Phyllis Bennett, a working mother whose 8-year-old son, Jody, has been enrolled in classes since September. Since then, Jody gave his best friend the cooking bug as well, and the two boys now attend classes together.
"When I first suggested it, he kind of wrinkled his nose at the thought," Bennett said, "but then I showed him the menu they were going to be learning, and he got excited. He's into soccer and baseball at school, but I think it's good for him to learn something that's not so male. God forbid he should ever learn how to wash a dish."
Except for the presence of microwave ovens, copper pots and smell of spices, the classes themselves resemble those in a typical schoolroom, with the same occasional tapping of feet, talking and mischief. And, just as in any classroom, the lessons must be planned and paced so as not to lose participants along the way.
Most students are 6 to 12, ages not known for long attention spans, and the classes frequently are peppered with miniature lessons in biology, math and even spelling.
"Yeast is a plant that's alive, and it likes being in warm water and eating sugar," explains Let's Get Cookin' teacher Sylvia Rieman, who holds a master's degree in nutrition and also
teaches high school food-preparation classes.
"The yeast eats the sugar, and then it gives off waste products, called carbon dioxide, and that makes the dough for the pizza rise," she tells a momentarily enraptured audience.
"Then, guess what happens to the yeast when you put it in the oven?" When there is no answer, she prompts, "Well, what would happen if someone put you in the oven?"
"You die!" the youngsters cried in unison.
Learn Recipes Aloud
Children in the classes read the recipes aloud, and are asked to measure the appropriate amount of each ingredient into a bowl.
"If the recipe calls for 3 1/2 cups of flour, and Jody, Matt and Stephanie have each already put in one cup of flour, how much flour does Erin have to put in the bowl?" Rieman asks.
"Is six times two 32?" one boy asks suddenly.
"No, it's 12."
When the time comes for the children to knead the dough for "California Pizza," Rieman encourages them to put their muscles into it.
"Now, this isn't the kind of kneading where you need someone to do something for you. That's spelled differently," she says.
The class is unimpressed, and the children continue to talk among themselves.
"You've probably seen people on television spin the dough on their finger and then toss it up in the air," she says, watching the children rise up excitedly in their chairs. Having gained their attention once again, she smiles. "Well, we're not going to do that today."
The children deflate like souffles taken too quickly from the oven.
Often, parents become aware of the children's cooking classes after taking some gourmet lessons of their own.
"There has been a definite increase in adult continuing education courses for gourmet cooking and catering," said Laura Nelson, program assistant in the Culinary Arts Department at UCLA. "It's become an attractive thing to do, and there are a lot of outlets, such as opening your own business or catering for parties."
Cooking-school owners are banking on what many believe has become a food craze in California, as well as the glamour that such chefs as Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Puck of Spago in West Hollywood have brought to gourmet cooking. Teaching children the culinary ropes, they say, is an investment in the future.