Kids in the kitchen

Blue Ribbon's classes for tykes teach more than just cooking skills

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.


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