Look Who's Cooking 

Kids in the kitchen at the Young Chefs Academy.

If your little Sally bypasses SpongeBob SquarePants on Nickelodeon for the Food Network's Rachael Ray, she should feel right at home at the Young Chefs Academy, a cooking school in Cordova for kids ages 5 to 14.

Young Chefs Academy is a Texas-based franchise founded in 2003 by Julie Burleson and Suzy Vinson, two moms who "love cooking, love children, and love a good time in the kitchen." There are now about 100 schools nationwide, including three in Tennessee.

The Cordova academy opened four months ago and is owned by Bill Canterbury, who used to work as a professional baker for Pillsbury.

"Today, children really don't learn any of the basic housekeeping skills because the schools don't offer home-economics classes anymore," Canterbury says. "We're just providing an outlet for kids who like to cook, and it's great to see how much they enjoy it."

During the academy's classes, instructors bewitch the children, showing them how to prepare tiramisu, seven-layer dip, potato salad, and homemade pasta. A favorite among the kids is chocolate mousse. "It tastes like chocolate ice cream," raves first-grader Shelby Dorris.

Shelby has been going to the Young Chefs Academy once a week, and her mom, Shannon, is surprised at how much she's learned in a short time. "Vanilla used to be the name of her favorite ice cream, but now she knows that it is an ingredient used for flavoring, and she even points out the bottle on the shelf," Shannon says.

Andrea Barrach, whose 6-year-old daughter Emily is a regular, tells a similar story. "It's just amazing all the things she's learned here, and it's not just preparing a dish," Barrach says. "The other day, they made pasta from scratch and that definitely left an impression on Emily. She thought pasta came out of a bag or a box. When she actually made pasta herself, she told everybody about it."

The academy has two fully equipped kitchens so the children can be divided into age-appropriate groups of no more than 15 chefs-to-be. Every class is 90 minutes, and the kids usually prepare two recipes with the help of a head cook and an assistant. They also learn about kitchen hygiene and safety. (The older kids use safety knives, and the younger ones use scissors.) In addition, most children have a folder for their recipes, and each recipe page has a space on the back to rate the recipe and make notes about what was good, what was not so good, and what they would change, if they want to make the dish again at home.

Before cooking can begin, the kids and the chefs read the recipe together to make sure they have all the ingredients and understand the directions. For instance, the tiramisu recipe calls for ladyfingers, so a quick survey is done: Does everybody know what ladyfingers are? No? The chefs then take the time to explain the ingredients and preparation. Another example: Most of the kids know the cocoa powder they use to make chocolate milk, but the cocoa powder they'll sprinkle on top of the tiramisu is different. It's unprocessed Dutch cocoa powder and it's bitter, not sweet. During class, the children have a chance to see, smell, taste, touch, explore, and ask questions about food and experience what they can cook with a bunch of different ingredients.

"When the kids read the recipe and see the ingredients they sometimes turn up their noses because the recipe might call for things they don't like -- onions, for example," Canterbury says. "But at the end, when they get to try the finished dish, the onion might have disappeared in, let's say, a pasta sauce. So then they're amazed that something that has onion in it can taste so good or they forgot all about the onion."

The academy's team, as well as the parents, encourage the children to take at least one bite of everything they've cooked.

"That's our rule," says Shannon Dorris. "Shelby has to take one bite. If she doesn't like it, that's fine, she can wash it down with some lemonade. But sometimes she might find that it's not that bad after all."

Barrach agrees. "Emily is definitely more open to try new things, here and at home."

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