This summer, Blue Ribbon Cooking School's graduating students will solemnly don their white chef's coats before receiving an engraved chef's knife with their diploma ― and then giggle like the 9-year-olds they are while serving their parents a sit-down dinner.
"By the time you've successfully taught children cooking, you've taught them math, presentation skills, and how to talk to a group," says Virginia Duppenthaler, who cofounded the cooking school with her husband, Mike, in 1995. "The dinner table is a wonderful, nourishing place, and cooking together provides a great way to bond."
As parents of five grown children themselves, the Duppenthalers learned firsthand that kids who know their way around the kitchen can really help parents out ― and learn a host of important life skills, including independence and creativity, while they're at it. "Something had to come out of having kids and wondering what would end up on the table for dinner," says Virginia. "I learned that if I could say to them, 'You're on tonight,' it gave them a chance to shine."
It's appropriate that today Virginia's daughter, Vanessa Johns-Webster, directs Blue Ribbon's weeklong summer cooking camps. The former kid who cooked at her mother's knee is a pro now. "Kids can tire a chef out pretty quickly," she says with a knowing smile. "That's why we have a minimum of one chef for every 10 kids."
Although teaching cooking skills to wildly energetic kids on summer vacation might sound daunting to most of us, the Duppenthalers take it all in stride. In the early days, Mike had to round up milk crates so the students could reach the long butcher-block tables to do prep work. Now sturdy, extra-high benches designed especially for younger children line the tables. The classes, designed to hold kids' ever-roaming attention, are artful and productive too; subjects include such things as making food for bento boxes, and learning how to cook with herbs in a course that includes an herb tasting as well as instructions on growing them.
A place to practice
Kid-friendly strategies like these are part of what sets Blue Ribbon apart, as does the school's impressive 5,200-square-foot new facility, which opened last July. Perched at the edge of Lake Union, the space boasts large teaching kitchens and a baking area where hands-on classes take place, plus an outdoor patio where kids eat lunch in the summer and a dining room where they serve the formal graduation dinners to their parents. Look around and you'll see other telling details, from the collection of cookbooks to inspire young minds to the 100-plus aprons hanging on hooks near the entryway.
As the Duppenthalers see it, the professional facilities are not only nice, they're essential. "When I went to cooking school, I was watching experts cook all the time and I had no place to practice myself. It just didn't work," Virginia says. "If you don't have a place of your own to cook, you lose it."
If Blue Ribbon has carved out an unusual niche, it somehow makes sense, given Virginia's background. She was raised in a small town in Georgia, where her father, a food technologist, invented the now-famous corn dog. "My dad worked out the recipe with me at home on a stool," she recalls. "We'd dip the hot dog into the cornbread and then we'd fry it up." Eventually the family started manufacturing corn dogs for restaurants and the retail market. By the time Virginia started college in Ames, Iowa, she was a bona fide foodie ― but not the corn dog-style fast-food variety. She enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and now credits that experience with revealing just how much of an equalizer food can be. "Food brings people together, because it's common ground for everyone," she says. That goes for kids too.
INFO: Blue Ribbon Cooking School (from $345; 2501 Fairview Ave. E.; www.blueribboncooking.com or 206/328-2442) offers weeklong cooking camps from late June through August for three age groups: 4-7, 8-11, and 12-17.
How to get kids hooked on cooking
• Make your kitchen kid-friendly. Your child should be able to reach the counter and whatever tools he or she needs.
• Use real cooking tools. Teach proper techniques for using stoves, sharp knives, can openers, and peelers. Children will respect the danger these tools can present if you teach them proper methods and let them practice under your supervision.
• Give kids room to create. Set out an assortment of ingredients and then let them go.
• Play a restaurant game at home. Have your children draw up a menu for adults to order from. Even if the dish is simple, kids get a kick out of taking orders and passing out the bill.
• Allow kids to serve at dinnertime. It'll get them involved in meals and teach them good presentation skills.
• Delegate small tasks. Let children arrange food, create salad dressings, or add designs to cookies and cakes.
• Give cooking tools as gifts. A good one to start with is a citrus zester, because kids enjoy making a curly, colorful slice of peel.
• Let mistakes go. After all, cooking is about trial and error.
• Cook "real" recipes with your kids. Don't dumb things down for them, or rely solely on children's cookbooks. Instead, follow tested recipes, making small alterations to lower the skill level.