Smart Cookies

Teaching kids to cook like grownups

Tuesday, March 18, 2014 | 7:18 pm

Chris Allen, executive chef at The Cooking Camp.

Chris Allen, executive chef of The Cooking Camp, a subsidiary of the Summer Art Academy in Pasadena, is never going to teach your child how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

“We never talk down to them,” said Allen, from his own professional kitchen deep inside a former bank building in Downtown LA, where he works as an executive chef. “I think the key to this success has been that I always treated them like grownups.”

It’s the ninth year of the Cooking Camp, now the most popular camp in the Summer Academy, serving children from 7 to 17. From its first year in a small kitchen in Pasadena, and then several years at Blair High School, the camp has been located at La Cañada High School since 2011, and has grown in popularity each year.

Allen ended up creating the camp and developing the curriculum during his time as a student at Pasadena’s Le Cordon Bleu.

It was a mid-career change. He had studied and trained as a journalist, and found himself working for a parking management company. He opted, in his mid-30s, to do something else, something that he would love. He left the parking management company to form his own catering company with a partner, which led him to professional classes at Le Cordon Bleu, where is now part of the faculty.

“I answered an ad during my externship, met the person in charge, and we clicked instantly, and I was asked to run the entire cooking camp program,” Allen recalled.

Now, the cooking classes are almost a sociological and cultural snapshot of the 21st Century American family. Says Allen, “Back when we first started, a mother would say to me, ‘He doesn’t watch cartoons, he watches the Food Network,’ And in going back, ten years ago, that was the beginning of the Food Network.”

So, while previous generations watched Saturday morning cartoons, a new generation watched “The Iron Chef” or “Cake Boss.”

“And the disconnect was,” explained Allen, “was that their mothers didn’t know how to cook.” It’s now, ironically, a fast food generation longing to cook their own meals.

“I try to teach them how to cook with their senses, not just follow a recipe,” says Allen. “Like, sight, what is the food doing while you’re cooking? How is it changing?” or “Touch, chefs are always touching the food, so, all of their senses come into play. So, I try to de-mystify the kitchen and not make it such a scary place. And they are so open to everything you put in front of them, they want to learn everything. Not one child has ever come to my cooking camp and not wanted to be there, whereas some kids might go to a sports camp, and not be that into sports.”

In fact, as spring emerges and summer gets into the family conversation, excitement is already building in anticipation, says Allen.

“I got a letter from a mother, who says, ‘My daughter can’t talk about anything else. She keeps asking, ‘When is cooking camp?!’ Or, parents will tell me that their child came home from camp, and duplicated everything they made right at home, and it was amazing!”

The campers are taught everything from basic food handling safety to kitchen and knife safety, and most emerge from the summer sessions able to create a full meal for themselves and their families. The course itself is geared to be as professional as possible, and a number of “graduates” now work in the professional food industry at local hotels and restaurants.

And, as Allen emphasizes, “This is a great way to give children a life lesson. They learn discipline, how to work together, how to work in teams, and of course, they make new friends, which is also great.”

The La Cañada Cooking Camp is at La Cañada High School, 4463 Oak Grove Dr, La Cañada Flintridge. Sessions begin June 9 and run through late August. Each of the one-week camp sessions meets five days a week. Morning classes meet from 9 a.m. Noon, and afternoon classes meet from 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. 866-507-COOK.


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