Want to bring kids into the kitchen? Here’s a primer on how to do it from one who knows. Riki Senn has taught more than 1000 children in her classes at The Greenbrier resort, “Cooking is a natural for children,” she says, “but it must be set up right.” First off, each child is issued an apron and a chef’s toque on which they write their name in capitals – “You’ve got to be able to catch their attention at all times,” Riki explains. “The uniform makes them feel like a chef, it sets the tone for class.”
In the kitchen, Riki Senn has rules such as ‘keep it clean’ and ‘always ask me before getting started.’ “You’ve got to enforce the rules,” she says. “Yes, there’s a touch of boot camp, but kids like to know what they can do, and what not. I tell it like it is.” Clearly she has the magic touch. Only once did an older boy refuse, first to put on his apron, and then to tie its strings. “Dangling strings are a hazard,” declared Riki, and offered a choice. Lace up, or spend the two hours of class in her office in full view of the remaining students. Capitulation was rapid.
Each child has printed recipes – by setting a lower age limit of 6 years, it’s assumed that everyone can read. The large type is enlivened by illustrations of winking fish and dancing broccoli, with key words such as ‘hot’ or ‘wash’ picked out in red and blue. Riki draws a clear line between tasks that can be done independently and those requiring help such as taking hot dishes from the oven. “You’d be surprised how much some of them know, they pick it up from food TV,” she says.
In practice, kids quickly become involved in the action. “We teach them a lot,” says Riki, “The amount for a two-hour class may seem high, but it’s worth it. Showing kids how to follow a recipe involves reading and comprehension, math (measuring ingredients), science (chemical reactions), geography (ethnic dishes), even a bit of language. Last year for instance we did Queso Dip, so they learned the Spanish for cheese. Besides, edible homework is cool.”
Only a few bits of special equipment are needed. Each youngster has access to a lettuce knife, an implement of hard green plastic with a 6-inch blade which is available at gourmet stores, and a paring knife of the type used to carve Halloween pumpkins. Metal bench scrapers are used for chopping. For pastries and cookies the students can choose from a wide range of cutters. Small kids stand on a platform, raising them to the level of the work bench: “They love it,” remarks Riki, “It makes them feel like the big guys.”
When Riki Senn chooses a recipe, one simple criterion holds: kids must like to eat it. “But this is real food, we don’t just open cans and dump stuff. I like to teach them a technique.” Favorite menu is ‘Pizza from Scratch’ closely followed by ‘I’ll Make Supper.’ Riki prides herself that after class even the smallest children can go home and participate in cooking a full meal. Parents are constantly amazed by what the kids can do, and even more by what they will eat. “Even spinach and zucchini,” says Riki, “no one is allowed to say ‘yuk’ and spit it out,” she grins. “We try to encourage them to say, for example ‘I really, truly, honestly, don’t like kiwis.’”
At the end of class, participants parade before their parents, each with a platter dressed to the nines. The table is set buffet-style and everyone tucks in to a full meal. Each child is asked to describe one thing they have learned. And here is the secret to success. “One of our firm rules is that we don’t allow a child to fail,” says Chef Riki. “We try to show them how to save it – though it can be pretty tough sometimes!” She looks reflective. “The kids learn from us, but we sure learn interesting things from them about their families!”
Predictably, parents are not always a help. “Some of them take over from the children, to boss them around,” she says. One fatal day she was persuaded against her better judgment to allow parents as well as kids into class. A hapless mother arrived with not one but three offspring aged 7, 4, and an infant in a backpack. In the kitchen the infant joined right in, reached over his mother’s head and pulled a stack of glass dishes to the floor with a massive crash. “Freeze!” yelled Riki, then one by one rescued the bare-toed mother and children from the sea of glass shards on the floor. Amazingly, no one was cut. “It was an absolute, freaking disaster. Never again!” she vows.