For Chef Michael Matthews, director of Spectrum360’s CulinaryAcademy360, the importance of learning to cook goes beyond making food. It’s using the skills learned in the kitchen to expand curious minds, social interaction, palates, and ultimately independence.
In CA360’s after-school and Saturday programs, Matthews uses discussion and peer interaction to build excitement and engagement for the day’s recipe. Students discuss the culture and the history behind the dish. Where do the ingredients come from? What techniques do we use to make it? What are the safety rules of the kitchen? Everything in the class is designed to encourage students to be involved in the process, and to interact with each other during the act of cooking.
“A little food knowledge, a little history, a little science, a little math all plays into it,” says Matthews. “Over the course of the year, you can see their knowledge growing.”
And the approach works. According to feedback from parents, when at home their kids want to talk about what’s for dinner or how it’s being prepared. They might not eat everything yet, but they want to get involved in the cooking, or setting the table and participating in mealtime. What they’re learning is opening new avenues for communication at home and with their peers.
“We tell them, you have to tell mom and dad what you made today,” says Matthews. “The goal is to get them talking about food and letting the family know about the different things they’re trying. Maybe they don’t remember exactly how to make it, but they remember whether they liked it.”
Each class begins with setting up for the lesson. Aprons are put on, hands are washed. Safety rules are reviewed.
After their opening discussion, Matthews does a demonstration of the recipe and the students get to work – measuring, chopping and more! While the food is cooking they watch a video on the day’s project and point out the ingredients and techniques they just used.
“Much of what we do is hands-on. The repetition is really good for some students and clients, so they’re seeing what they should or shouldn’t be doing. Tying their hair back, not wearing jewelry, not running around in the kitchen,” says Matthews. All things that students must know if they go on to jobs in the food industry.
When the food is ready, they come back to the table, finish the dish, serve it up and finally, get the opportunity to taste their creations.
Overcoming resistance to new foods and learning to try things is a big part of the class, says Matthews, as it creates opportunities for conversation. For example, when making a pasta dish, the students might discuss times they’ve had pasta, what they did and didn’t like about it, what other kinds of dishes might have pasta in them. Anything to spark an interest in the day’s lesson and trying new foods.
“Today we made soup – ok, what’s your favorite soup? Chicken noodle, chicken noodle, chicken noodle, all the kids say. Well, we can’t always make chicken noodle! This time we had Portuguese soup – we talked about the culture, where the spices came from, the history. We go off on a tangent sometimes but I’m not going to lose the teaching moment. Hearing other kids talk about their food tastes teaches the others about trying different things.
A lot of them have limited palates, others love to talk about food but don’t want to try it, and then there are those who are really into trying,” says Matthews, explaining the range of tastes in an average class. “The foodie guys and gals, they are touching everything.”
All classes are nut-free, for safety reasons. For some students and clients, there are foods restrictions for health or religious reasons, and Matthews works to accommodate them as best he can. After-school classes do prepare a few gluten-free recipes throughout the course, but alternate versions of dishes are not made in every class. Students participate in every aspect of making the dish and are offered alternate foods to eat when it comes time to taste.
However, as Matthews says, these are cooking classes, not eating classes. Rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty is a must-do for students. And it is worth noting that all food is created from scratch…no boxed mixes in this kitchen!
“Some are a little squeamish, some jump right in. But the more they buy into what they’re doing, the more they’re into trying things.”
“We’re trying to teach them how to live independently by cooking,” he says. “The goal is to always show them a blend of life skills, and for some, we are opening the door to look at food services as an option for getting a job.”
As Matthew reminds students, “You might not eat everything, but you can learn how to cook it. You might not like it, but if you don’t taste it you won’t know. It’s all about having an open mind and trying different things and learning the technique. In a commercial kitchen, you’re not cooking for yourself, you’re cooking for others, so you need to know how to make it.”
And learning “how” to do things is a big part of the program.
“One day, we cracked 9 dozen eggs, trying to teach the kids how to crack eggs. Not all their hands work the way yours and mine do. So we have to adjust how we do it, or find different ways to crack eggs.”
The most important thing, Matthews tells parents, is to get your kids involved.
“The longer you wait to get a kid started in the kitchen, the harder it is. The older clients in the adult programs are often used to being taken care of, so they’re reluctant to get their hands dirty; they don’t want to get involved. The challenge is to make it fun, sometimes put music on, or watch a video first try to engage them.”
He continues, “It’s all about engagement. We don’t always care if the food is made, it’s all about engaging the students and making them want to cook. Some kids turn into foodies. One student got so into food, he made his parents take him to Bobby’s Flay’s restaurant in New York City. He called me the next day and asked ‘Guess what I ate?’” Matthews laughs. “He ate rabbit. Here’s a kid two years ago who would barely eat anything beyond a chicken nugget – a very limited diet.”