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Cooking Lessons for the Small Fry

Kids are often curious about how things come together in the kitchen. Classes bring them into the mix.

September 19, 2002|JESSICA STRAND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When my 3-year-old watches the Food Channel, Emeril's gestures, the chef's phraseology and his obvious abilities in the kitchen mesmerize my son. "Can we make that? I want to make an enchilada!"

Though we have yet to make an enchilada, we nightly whip together vinaigrette; he spoons in the mustard, I press the garlic, we squeeze the lemon (his hand on top of mine), and so our evening ritual goes. He looks forward to it, as I do, and each evening he tells me how delicious it tastes, and how pleased he is with our accomplishment.

It's true that your child can learn about cooking and safety in your own kitchen. But what happens when they are interested and you're not, or their passion for food preparation far exceeds yours, or they just want to learn more? The answer is simple: cooking classes, which are offered for kids and teens all over Los Angeles.

Each program has its own approach. Though all of them divide the classes according to age, which may vary a year or two on either side; most begin at around 6 years old and go right up to 16. The classes are relatively small, never exceeding about 20 students per class, which keeps the group manageable and gives the teacher time to focus on each student.

The curriculums differ widely. Some are quite sophisticated, asking the group to prepare regional four-course meals from top to bottom using easy-to-follow, scaled-down adult recipes. Others theme the cuisine, like those offered at Bristol Farms in Manhattan Beach with classes like "A Halloween Fiesta" for kids and "Spooky Taco Night" for teens. There are also classes which blend popular culture with food preparation like Let's Get Cookin's parent-child Harry Potter Workshop and the Comic Book Super Hero cooking classes. Phyllis Vaccarelli ,director of Let's Get Cookin', finds that it's a wonderful activity for parents and children to do together: "It makes them slow down and enjoy each other, and both of them end up learning so much."

Top Chefs Have Class

Well-known chefs have been going into classrooms for years. Chefs such as Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger (of Border Grill and Ciudad) participate in outreach programs in area schools in which they instruct kids about cooking.

One of their most popular classes teaches children how to make their own flour tortillas, which they then turn into melted-cheese quesadillas.

Occasionally they offer this class on the patio at the Border Grill in Santa Monica, and this year they had more than 45 kids between the ages of 6 and 12 sign up. "The key is to give them ownership of projects," Milliken says. "It's important for them to discover things. You give them the tools, techniques and a few ideas and let them do it themselves."

Joe Miller of Joe's in Venice has been going into his own children's classrooms two to three times a month for six years. He likes to blend simple cooking classes with their current area of study; recently he prepared egg foo yong when they were studying Asia. In fact, he's accumulated so many recipes from his visits that he's putting together a book for the kids he's taught over the years.

Perhaps it's the responsibility of thinking through a process and seeing it come to fruition quickly that makes so many chefs and teachers agree that cooking classes are a great confidence builder. It can be a place to learn a whole host of important lessons, some related to food, some related to functioning in the world.

Life Skills Learned

Michelle Moore, children's cooking teacher at both Bristol Farms in Manhattan Beach and Sur La Table in Santa Monica, explains: "It's a good experience for them because it's not just about cooking. It's a process of thinking, working together, directing others, using their math skills, learning about food safety and food allergies. It also involves making mistakes and finding out why. These are not just kitchen skills, these are life skills."

And she added, "To see them taste delicious food they've made themselves, you can tell how proud they are!"

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