How cooking classes can give kids a leg up on growing up

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published February 28, 2018

 Classes at Zee the Cook Culinary Studio in Dearborn Heights tailor lessons and equipment to each student’s skill level.

Classes at Zee the Cook Culinary Studio in Dearborn Heights tailor lessons and equipment to each student’s skill level.

Photo from Zee the Cook’s Facebook page

METRO DETROIT — Typically, kids in the kitchen can be divided into two categories: eager to help, and avoiding at all cost until they learn to boil pasta in college.

And while many parents might be fine with kiddos keeping clear of the kitchen, lest they leave a mess alongside their culinary creation, it might be a better idea to teach youngsters the basics of cooking early.

That’s what Lauren Vidak, of The Community House in Birmingham, said. She’s the programs and enrichment manager there, and she said that each year, The Community House offers cooking camps for children that fill up about as quickly as you can say “bon appetit.”

“I think we often see kids come to camp around the age of 9 or 10, when they’re definitely able to express what they’re interested in,” Vidak said. “It’s around that time that kids can tell their parents they want to take ownership in the kitchen — they’ve watched from the sidelines long enough, and they want to get into the action.”

The Community House offers four cooking camps that span a range of cooking concepts and skills, plus a “Bakeology” camp that focuses strictly on working with pastries and other baking techniques.

Vidak said kids learn everything from how to make pasta from scratch to what role yeast plays in bread baking. 

“It’s an early introduction to skills they’ll be able to use for the rest of their lives, and it’s interesting because a lot of our counselors in their 20s say they never learned that type of thing, even at their age,” she said. “It’s a really broad introduction to basic skills instead of just learning recipes.”

While many grown-ups wouldn’t mind a helping hand in the kitchen, concerns over safety might trump that wish. Working with knives and burners doesn’t necessarily need to be dangerous, particularly if little ones are learning from professional cooking educators. That’s according to “culinarian” Zee Shami, owner of Zee the Cook Culinary Studio in Dearborn Heights.

“We have knives made specifically for kids made from a durable thick plastic. They’re sharp enough to slice an apple, but not able to cut their skin,” she said. “We watch them really closely and test them on their skills. Sometimes they might ask if they can get a real knife, and we have to tell them they’re not ready yet. Other times, we know they’re more than ready, but we wait for it to come from them. We want them to have that confidence.”

Shami specializes in cooking classes for all ages, but she shines when it comes to kids camps that can last all day and cover a variety of topics.

“We’re open during winter breaks and spring breaks and holidays off, so kids can have a place to go when school is out. And we start with making and eating breakfast, and making and eating lunch. But in between, we’re doing physical activity and doing math and chemistry that’s related to cooking,” she said.

A big part of Shami’s curriculum is teaching kids about the important aspects of cooking and eating — that aren’t cooking and eating. 

“I’m certified with ServSafe, so we talk a lot about cleaning up before and after we cook, why we tie our hair back, things like that. And we also talk about etiquette at the table. Since we’re all working and learning together as a class, they really learn about (food) as a social experience.”

Cooking classes are a great way to teach the younger set about the basics of nutrition. Shami said her instruction includes plenty of information on fruits and vegetables, which ones pair well and what benefits they have for our bodies.

Vidak said the same, and added that instructors at The Community House hone in on balanced meals — making sure protein and carbohydrate elements are weighted correctly, for instance — and working around common food allergies.

“One thing they learn is how to tell if eggs are fresh, and the importance of finding out where something comes from,” she said. “It seems silly because they’re not shopping for themselves yet, but those are skills that will definitely benefit them in the future that, by the time they’re adults, will just be second nature.”