Students learn how to make salsa verde pork tacos. (The Cooking Project)
Most of us started out in the kitchen making cookies with family for a holiday or boiling water for blue-box mac and cheese. Maybe we set off the smoke detector an embarrassing number of times, but regardless, those simple cooking lessons built the foundation for how we eat in adulthood. Now, in the Bay Area—world-renowned for its “foodie culture”—several institutions are bringing basic cooking lessons to the next level. Part of the fun in cooking for kids is that they develop a sense of independence. If they want a snack, now they can make one for themselves! But more than that, cooking helps kids feel connected to their families and their friends in a way that only food can.
If you’re looking to get your kid started, here are a few places around the Bay fostering a love of the culinary arts in kids ages 4-18.
Sprouts Cooking Club wants to connect kids to food on a deeper level, using hands-on learning from “chefs that have different ethnic backgrounds, individual cooking techniques, and unique philosophies on nutrition and ingredients.”
Part of a bi-coastal effort to get students into the culinary arts, Sprouts Cooking Club has a wide variety of programs open to kids of varying ages.
One stand-out program Sprouts offers is the six-month Chef-in-Training (CIT) program. CIT is a paid apprenticeship wherein young adults “that haven’t had it easy” learn the skills they need to know in order to land a long-term job in the food industry. During the program, they're partnered with a chef mentor and receive job application coaching so they’re ready for their next step.
For younger, amateur cooks, check out Sprouts’ spring and summer camps. Kids 7-12 spend the week learning knife and safety rules while cooking with accomplished guest chefs using locally sourced ingredients. Past camps have included cooking at The Funky Elephant for the day, trips to the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market, and running Gibson restaurant for a week.
“Cooking is such a perfect medium for kids to gain confidence in their own abilities and get success out of something they’ve put their energy into,” says Tracy Cates, founder of Cook! Programs. Cook! offers summer camps and classes for kids aged 9-18, with the possibility of continuing on to an internship for older students.
The courses are hosted at Rocket Restaurant Resource, a supply store with two large commercial kitchens where kids won’t have to worry about whether or not they have a spatula. “We’re in a commercial setting, with all the equipment they could need,” says Cates. “So there’s the opportunity for them to experience a very wide range of culinary techniques.”
Classes range from dinner and desserts, to pasta and asian-style courses, and are taught by professional chefs from across the Bay—like Chef Paige Reinis and Chef Francisco Machado.
If you’re looking for something a little more challenging, older kids, between 13-18, can take the chef-in-training course, which is two weeks and two days of intensive study. Chefs-in-training will learn proper knife skills and kitchen rules, as well as be encouraged to experiment with what they’ve learned.
The Cooking Project
San Francisco Bay Area, CA
(Locations vary depending on partner)
By partnering with different communities and schools across the bay, The Cooking Project, founded by Daniel Patterson and Sasha Bernstein, has a slightly different approach to teaching kids culinary basics.
“We take a three-prong approach to our cooking classes,” says Bernstein. The first prong is technical, which includes foundational techniques like knife skills, health and safety rules, and how to use heat sources appropriately. The other prongs are “practical” and “conceptual.”
“The practical side is things like shopping and budgeting, how to use leftovers, seasonality, and sustainability,” continues Bernstein. For the conceptual prong, The Cooking Project works with a sociologist to develop themes around society and food. Past themes have included “food as medicine,” “food and community,” and “race and ethnicity around food.”
Some current partners of The Cooking Project include the Guardian Scholars Program, San Francisco State University, Oakland Asian Community Center, and JCYC. Classes are generally geared toward students between the ages of 15-25 and they run parallel to school semesters in the area.
Past classes have ranged from “eggs five different ways” to bibingka and calamansi juice and have been taught by chefs like Ervin Lopez and Mira D'Souza. Courses are made available to students free of charge and can be found through their respective schools or community centers throughout the year.
For the past six years, Lisa Miller, co-owner of Kitchen on Fire, has been helping teens learn to cook.
“I think it’s a life skill they will be really glad their parents sought out for them when they were this age,” says Miller.
Currently, Kitchen on Fire runs four summer camps a year and a spring break camp where students can come and learn to cook with chefs like co-owner Olivier Said—aka “Chef Olive.” Past dishes have included vegetarian paella, fresh-made pizza, and gallo pinto.
“Being a part of [food] in the kitchen and making it and being able to make a decision about what goes into it or understanding how it all comes together and appreciating the food, actually goes a long way to just eating healthier,” continues Miller.
While the teen camps are currently only a few times a year, Kitchen on Fire is hoping to work on offering more courses throughout the year—including a soon-to-be-announced offering for young college students between the ages of 17-20.
Offering courses for the youngest chefs in this guide, Culinary Artistas, located in the famous Ghirardelli Square, offers courses for kids ages 4-9—and they go even younger if the parent wants to take the class, too.
The program was founded by Vanessa Silva, formerly of La Happy Belly, another cooking and education center geared at young learners. Silva, along with “Sous Chef Peter” and “Sous Chef Janine,” works to “develop creative minds and healthy bodies.”
Part day-camp, part exploratory cooking experience, the summer camps at Culinary Artistas break up cooking activities with outdoor excursions and activities. Their Wrap and Roll camp, for example, offered kids the chance to explore areas like Fort Mason and the Municipal Pier before coming back to make their own dumplings for an afternoon snack.
If you’d like to test the waters with your toddling chef, the year-round Cook with Your Little Ones series offers weekly 1-hour classes with story time and cooking activities meant to inspire and expand your kid’s love of food. Since these classes have parents present, they allow for children as young as 24 months to participate.