“Is the ginger pickled?” one girl said, eyeing the pink slices. “Oh! It’s spicier than I remember,” another girl exclaimed after eating a teaspoon of Sriracha. “This seaweed is amazing,” a third girl said many times while munching away.
The room was full of chatter as students tried an array of Japanese treats and ingredients—seaweed, fish eggs, Oshinko pickles, cucumbers, and “crab” (a girl said with air quotes to indicate it’s imitation).
At one point, they took out their iPhones and filmed a student’s reaction to tasting a Japanese candy—a bizarre flavor that resembles sweet at the beginning, but turns sour and almost earthy. The trash can was purposely placed nearby.
On this recent day at Bill Roberts K-8, Chef Maggie O’Toole welcomed questions and experimented along with the students. She then demonstrated how to make sushi and students set off to make their own.
The culinary world is no longer limited to adults—there is a wave of young kids who are eating and cooking sophisticated foods.
O’Toole, owner of the culinary company Foodfest, teaches weekly cooking classes for kids ages 3–14. She teaches the younger students out of her Stapleton home where she converted a spacious mudroom into a workstation.
Through the Wellness Department of Denver Public Schools, she received a $1,500 grant for kitchen tops, knives and other equipment to teach after school at Bill Roberts. The group is currently made up of 14 girls. They are beginning their second session.
“The boys play basketball instead, but they’ll figure out later this is how you get the ladies,” one explained.
“They’re so mature you almost forget how young they are. They’ve traveled to Mexico and Hawaii and are so thoughtful about the way they talk about life,” O’Toole says. She and the students interact like good friends—laughing, talking about their days, and speaking professionally about cooking techniques.
Several students in the Bill Roberts group say they like to experiment at home with different recipes they either learn in class or eat at a restaurant. Shows like MasterChef Junior have made chefs the new celebrities; part of the reason cooking is more popular among kids, O’Toole says.
O’Toole says her 8-year-old son doesn’t want to go to school when he’s missed an episode because other students will reveal what happened.
As part of the middle-school chef class, students participate in a competition similar to MasterChef Junior. They get a variety of ingredients and have one hour to make whatever they want. Teacher-judges taste anonymous plates and decide the winner. In the last competition, the winning dish was a Greek salad with quinoa, feta, cucumber, tomato and lemon juice.
In all of her classes, O’Toole aims to expose kids to different flavors. “I tell them you can’t say ‘yuck’ in cooking, so they say ‘not for me.’ But they all have to taste everything and explain what their taste buds are telling them.” In a previous session, her preschoolers tried different types of pickles.
As a child, O’Toole didn’t get to experience food the way kids do now. She grew up in Poland until she was 10. Her parents worked full-time so cooking was not a priority or even possible most of the time. She remembers her mom putting beef scalopini in the toaster oven and serving it unseasoned. “This is just … not edible,” she said as a child. At age 12, she took over the cooking in the household.
But she never considered food for a career.
At 23, she worked at an accounting firm and remembers sitting at her desk reading recipes in The New York Times. A recipe for tortilla soup called for a tomatillo. Tomatillo? What is a tomatillo? I must find this. Come to find out, the green tomato is available at almost any grocery store. She laughs thinking her young chefs already know that.
She wandered around the city, dreaming of her next meal. Finally, after years of fighting the urge for more food in her life, she decided to go with her gut and moved to Chicago to attend Kendall Culinary Arts.
After bouncing around different jobs, she’s landed the happiest point in her career. “I love my job. It’s way better than other food industry jobs, and especially because it’s with kids.”
After having her two boys, she began a revolt against kids’ menus. While mac and cheese and peanut butter and jelly have their place, kids don’t need a separate menu, she says.
O’Toole has found kids are actually very adventurous when it comes to food. She cites a first-grader who had never tried garlic and ate a whole clove at once. “Is that rocking your world right now?” she asked her, and laughs remembering her surprised look.
“Even kids who come from not-so-fancy eating habits are inclined to try new things.” She also offers adult classes and hosts birthday or dinner parties where she demonstrates how to cook a meal. For more information, contact Maggie O’Toole at 303.847.1523 or firstname.lastname@example.org.