Brady Miller is putting the finishing touches on her tray of 24 mini-pizzas. With a tongue stuck out in concentration, she gives the snack a final sprinkle of salt, carefully nudges a few pieces of mozzarella back onto the puff pastry and announces it's ready to be cooked.
Lisa Owens, her cooking instructor, gives the tray a once-over, compliments Brady on a job well done and slides the tray into the oven to bake for 15 minutes.
Brady is 5 years old.
“When I grow up, I want to be a chef,” Brady said. “I like cooking, and I want to learn how to make real food for people.”
Brady is one of more than 100 children who are flexing their culinary skills in this year's Young Chefs Academy summer cooking camps.
“Kids always want to help but parents don't have the time, don't know how to cook or are afraid of the mess that the kids could make,” said Owens, the owner of the franchise in Toringdon Market shopping center in Ballantyne. “This place is basically supposed to be a home away from home for the kids to have some hands-on structured practice without having the parents worry.”
During each three-day camp, 5-year-olds to teenagers work with an instructor on 12 to 15 recipes. Each Young Chefs Academy offers ovens, stoves and easy-to-clean tabletops in a colorful environment tailored for children.
“I can definitely see results from his experience at the camp,” said Laurie Ann Rottger, mother of 5-year-old Vincent. “He's always been pretty excited about cooking, but you can see that he's learned how to use spices and really grasped just how many ingredients and steps are involved in making something. He asks to help out with dinner more and can even make a few dishes.”
Other organizations have picked up on the young-cook fervor.
Johnson & Wales University's Charlotte campus offered its first summer cooking camp in June: a preteen culinary class, a teen culinary class and a teen baking class. The experimental program, which enrolled 30 students for the weeklong courses, received so much positive response that the school plans on expanding it next summer.
“We get a lot of calls from parents looking for children's cooking programs, usually from parents who say that their children watch the Food Network all the time,” said Patricia DelBello, director of culinary operations. “I definitely think that the Food Network has grown more popular and has fueled the industry and certainly the passion of young cooks-to-be. These kids were very into it.”
Cooking develops skills
The cooking programs provide a controlled environment, and the experience can also be a great way for the kids to hone other skills.
Kristen Stephens, director of early childhood education at Duke University, said the simple process of learning to cook can involve problem solving, decision making and the development of social skills.
“Aside from practicing fine and gross motor skills, children learning to cook also learn how to take turns, cooperate with each other and share the equipment,” Stephens said. “They can practice and apply math and science concepts, and those who go home and start helping their parents make dinner have the chance to build a stronger bond with their parents.”
The parents also can talk about nutrition and encourage their children to broaden their palates, measures that may help prevent obesity.
“Cooking, depending on how you approach it, has a large potential to really tie in a lot of different skills and content that the children can learn about and learn from,” Stephens said. “And when the food is good, it's a win-win.”
At last, the results
Back in the kitchen at Young Chef's Academy, Brady is ready to sample her cooking.
All morning, Brady and Vincent were cooking and chattering about getting married, and the food they were cooking for the reception.
It is now noon and there is silence in the kitchen. Brady took a plate and heaped it with samples of her pizettes, ziti and chocolate chip biscotti.
She didn't say a word. She was too busy furiously chewing.