I’ve always enjoyed baking and cooking, even as a kid. I’m not saying I’m good at it, but I do have my specialty dishes. So like any parent, I naturally tested the waters to see if my own son would share the same passion.
One of his Christmas presents was a mini-grocery cart with various fake produce, canned goods, and other kitchen staples. My traditional husband thought it was a silly gift for a 2-year-old boy, but I held steadfast, knowing that he would take to it – and I was right.
Months later, he still loves that grocery cart more than any other toy, which shocked my husband, who insisted on buying him a motorized “Lightning McQueen” race car. My son has barely touched it, much to his father’s disappointment.
And now my little budding chef is helping me set the table each night. When I asked his nursery school teacher if they have taught him this very useful life skill (men in the Caribbean, take note – especially if your wife or mom does all the cooking) and she said “no.”
To me, this is wonderful news. It’s not only adorable, but it also confirms my hunch that he may just have an affinity to all things kitchen-related. It doesn’t matter that he pulls about a dozen spoons and forks and about five plastic kid cups out of the drawer, but, hey, it’s the thought that counts.
When I mentioned to my husband that we should go the next step and buy him a mini-kitchen, he recoiled in horror – the thought of his “boy” playing kitchen was not something he could envision. This really upset me as I don’t want my son to adhere to gender stereotypes or labels.
I want him to find his niche and I want to be able to know him well enough to foster it. Who knows, maybe he’ll be a famous chef one day, like Chef Gusteau, the famous French chef-turned-rat mentor from one of my favorite Pixar movies, “Ratatouille.”
Maybe it’s an inherited trait, just like his love of music (from his father) and art (from me). I come from a long line of food people: my grandmother owned a little roadside restaurant, and both my aunts owned restaurants. While my husband’s mother is an excellent cook, he sadly is not. In fact, I just taught him to make eggs the other day and he’s in his 40s – but that’s another story altogether.
Reminiscing about my own childhood, I remember with such clarity the day my mother brought home a Betty Crocker Easy-Bake Oven when I was about 6 or 7 years old. I loved that thing more than life itself. It came with boxes of cake-mix to be blended with water and then poured into tin cups that could be pushed through a slot on the side of the oven.
The oven would then light up (thanks to mini-light bulbs) allowing you to peek through the small window of the oven door and anxiously watch the cake rise until the bell went off indicating it was done.
Nowadays, that particular toy oven would never pass the strict safety standards that, in the 1970’s, were nonexistent. But I got so cocky with my baking skills that I progressed to my mom’s real oven one lazy summer afternoon while she was not home, leaving my older brother in charge (who was nowhere to be found).
I must have been about 7 or 8 years old and I convinced my next door neighbors, who were two sisters about my age, to come over to my “restaurant” so I could bake them a “pizza.”
I lovingly set the table for them and then proceeded to add toppings to my pizza dough, which was just plain pita bread. This was the late ’70s, remember, so pita bread in small-town Ontario was practically unheard of. I knew that this thin-crust flatbread was somehow exotic, so you can basically give me credit for inventing the first gourmet artisan pizza.
I slathered on some Heinz ketchup for the sauce, spread on a jar of Velveeta cheese and who knows what else and then turned the oven onto a very high temperature (let’s say 500 degrees C).
Once the cheese was nice and bubbly, I took my gourmet pizza out of the oven and served it to my friends who were excitedly waiting for their meal. They took one bite and began to laugh heartily at its horrendous taste. I was quite upset and embarrassed by their responses, so like the quintessential temperamental chef that I was, I snatched it away from their messy little hands and said, “Fine, let’s go play outside then!” (I was very bossy, what can I say?)
Only one mistake – I forgot to turn off the oven, with most of the pizza still in there. Then the fire alarm went off, just as my mom walked through the door to the scene of smoke and burnt pita. I vividly remember being scolded and banished from ever turning the oven on again – and from the kitchen area generally – for the rest of my adolescence.
Luckily, it didn’t scar me for life, and although I’ve lost hope for my husband ever cooking me a succulent meal, there is still hope for my dear son who could very well be my personal chef someday in the not-so-distant future.
Nowadays, young kids may not have such freedoms or unsupervised playtime in the kitchen, but they do have cooking classes – something I wish I had back then. Organized cooking classes for kids were practically unheard of, at least where I was from.
Bon Vivant is one such place in Cayman that offers cooking classes for kids, and I can’t wait to sign up my toddler when he is old enough. I spoke with the instructor, Maureen Cubbon, who teaches there most Saturdays from noon to 1 p.m., and offers specialty classes and camps during holidays and school breaks for kids age 4 to 12.
Her themes include Chocolate Mania, Around the World Cuisine, Breakfast Champions and Pizza Party. From April 22 to May 27 she will also be offering an after-school program called “Grow, cook, eat!”
Cubbon is a self-taught chef who got her start in her mom’s kitchen at a very young age while growing up in Vancouver, Canada. She says it helped that her family had a garden at home where they grew herbs, vegetables and greens that were incorporated into their everyday meals and lives.
She is presently the Cayman Ambassador for the Food Revolution program, created by Jamie Oliver, and was a finalist in the Cayman Cookout Amateur Chef competition hosted by Eric Ripert in 2012 and won the competition in 2013.
“I was very grateful to have been able to cook for Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain, Jose Andres and The Ritz-Carlton, Cayman, chefs two years in a row. When I won in 2013, my helper was a 12-year-old student from our cooking classes.
“That experience made me realize that kids really do love cooking and eating well, so why not make it happen more often? The Budding Chef classes sprouted from there with our partners Bon Vivant,” she says.
According to Cubbon, cooking is not only an essential basic skill for everyone (including kids), it is a great way to get involved in your meals and connect with family and friends.
“Kids love to take part in the simple skills of chopping, grating, etc., but also creating their own meal using healthful and local ingredients – and it doesn’t have to be complicated or time consuming at all. Once they have ownership of the process, it can be an easy way to incorporate veggies and other wholesome foods into a child’s diet. It promotes camaraderie with their fellow budding chefs, confidence and love for food,” she says.
Cubbon says families are very busy and they have to do a lot more with a lot less money and time, so she knows that fast food, ready-made and even mass-produced options won’t be completely off the table. She says there is significant value in food education, understanding where our food comes and being aware of how we eat and fuel our bodies.
“Not only personally, but for the greater good of our community.”
For more information on Maureen Cubbon’s classes, visit www.bonvivant.ky or follow Bon Vivant on Facebook for the most updated information. Classes are $30 to $40 depending on theme and timing.