When Denise Norton was a young girl, meals were never terribly inspiring. Her mother, who did most of the cooking in the house, relied on a few staples and rarely deviated from her established norms.
Norton, the proprietor behind Flavour Cooking School on Madison Street, discovered the culinary arts on her own and has made it a priority to introduce whole families to the joys of food. One of her more successful programs, which she actually doubted from the very beginning, has been a series of cooking classes for children of all ages. Thanks in part to a spot on television’s Food Network, Flavour’s cooking camps for kids are routinely filled to capacity and even carry a waiting list for some of the more popular programs.
“I didn’t want anything to do with cooking,” Norton said of her childhood. “How to say this; my mother had dinner for us every day, but she wasn’t a very creative cook. We had a lot of canned foods and meatloaf. I didn’t have the experience of food as a creative outlet. It wasn’t till I was in my 20s that I started to appreciate cooking as a way of de-stressing.”
Norton opened Flavour Cooking School in December of 2003 and the following summer she offered only one cooking camp for kids. She had no idea if it would be successful. The Food Network caught wind of it and sent a crew to spend two days taping her camp for a show called “Recipe for Success” that was all about unique angles on the cooking industry. The show still airs now and again and provides good publicity for Norton’s summer camps, she said.
This year Flavour has 19 camps just for kids. Each one lasts anywhere between a couple days to a week, and parents are invited to four camps to cook with their kids. There are camps for all age groups, starting with Kitchen Helpers, aged 4 to 5, ranging all the way up to the teens. Each camp focuses on a different topic, from various ethnic foods to nutrition and restaurants, where the kids learn about professional cooking.
Norton said she has seen a tremendous shift in society’s attitude towards cooking over the past 10 or 20 years. The world’s oldest art is coming back into fashion, she said.
One of the reasons for this is the habit of eating out at restaurants, particularly exotic or ethnic restaurants. The American palate is becoming more sophisticated and people don’t want to come home to the same old meatloaf, according to Norton. Another factor is the growing interest in healthy eating, which stresses the importance of fresh vegetables. People are trying to get away from the chemical additives that are so much a part of processed food.
But what’s been a particularly big influence on the kids in Norton’s classes is the Food Network. Kids are eager to discuss their favorite shows and several of the parents touted the programming as entertaining and educational, and there’s never a question about age-appropriate content.
“Iron Chef” is a great favorite for many of the kids, but Alex and Andrea Semchyshyn, who attended a camp this summer, were raving about “Hell’s Kitchen,” a program on the Fox network, which they insist “is really cool.” They also like any contest where entrants prepare a dish that’s judged on taste, decoration, and negative space. Negative space is the amount of empty space on the plate, which, according to these young fans, is the sign of a true gourmet.
Both Alex and Andrea Semchyshyn insist that they came to cooking camp because they wanted to, without any undue encouragement from their parents.
“I decided to come here because ever since I’ve been little I’ve been interested in grandma’s cooking,” Andrea, 14, said. “So I wanted to learn better so that I can help mother.”
Her brother Alex, 12, is just as enthusiastic. He likes science and his mom explained that cooking is a lot like science, where he can experiment with putting together different combinations.
Twelve-year-old Adriana Menedez, also a cooking camp student, said she likes to invent new foods and wants to grow up to become a chef.
Another cultural shift Norton is seeing is the willingness of men to role up their sleeves and adopt what has traditionally been viewed as a woman’s responsibility as a homemaker. In Norton’s adult classes, 75 percent of the students are still women, though the men are catching up and sometimes display more enthusiasm, she said. In the kids’ classes, across all her age groups, half the students are boys.
Lisa Egan, whose son David attended a cooking camp, said that David has never associated cooking with something that only girls do. Both she and her husband share in the cooking at home, and many of the chefs on the Food Network are men, she said.
“Food has been so glamorized now by the television,” Egan said. “I grew up in an age of macaroni and cheese, and didn’t know how to cook at all when I became an adult. But a lot of the kids know how to cook now, and what they’re doing is serious cooking.”
David Egan does like to help with the cooking at home, but his mother said he doesn’t always do a good job of cleaning up after himself.
A number of camps will be starting up again in August for kids of all age groups.