A three-hour gourmet cooking class takes youngsters far beyond the realm of peanut butter and jelly

Hungry for kitchen skills

January 03, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

Casey Tarman clutched a sweet potato with her fingers in a claw-like formation and pushed down hard with a large knife.

When the knife barely budged into the potato, she took a deep breath and tried again.

Chef Daniel Wecker walked over and asked, "How are you doing over here?"

"This is a big one. Can you help me? I don't think I'm ever going to get this potato cut," the 9-year-old Baltimore resident said, pointing to the reluctant potato.

"What do you mean, `Never'? Of course, you can do it," Wecker said. "This is just a thick potato, and it's hard for anyone to cut."

Wecker cut the potato down the middle and instructed Casey and the group of seven other youngsters to keep working to cut the potatoes into chunky cubes.

The children were taking part in a three-hour gourmet cooking class at the Elkridge Furnace Inn. For $55, the children learned to cook a savory sweet potato soup, a root vegetable hash, duck breast and an apple tart.

"We don't make peanut butter sandwiches cut out in cute shapes with cookie cutters," said Wecker, the owner and head chef at the inn. "But I do have the kids make things they can do at home."

The class also includes instruction on safety and sanitation, said Wecker, who recently started offering the course.

"Ninety percent of all food-borne illness results from problems arising from inadequate hand washing," he said.

Using easy-to-find ingredients, Wecker challenges the young chefs to do things they haven't done in the kitchen before, he said.

"I teach the kids to use the burners and cut their own vegetables," said Wecker, 48, a native of Lancaster, Pa., who lives in Elkridge. "Young people need to experience adult things. There are times in their lives that they are called to be in social settings, and if they are treated like babies, then they don't know how to act."

The children each had a workstation set up on a long banquet table in a heated porch attached to the main building of the restaurant.

Each station was equipped with a burner, a skillet, tongs, an apron, a cutting board, a large knife, a paring knife and a vegetable peeler.

"I try to make the class the same as it would be for adults," Wecker said.

Over the years, Wecker has done demonstrations in schools to expose youngsters to the culinary arts. He recently began offering the class with the same objective in mind.

"There are a lot of kids out there who aren't college people, and I want to show them what cooking is like if they do it for a job," he said. "I want to show them that cooking and fine dining is a way that they can fill a need to be artistic."

Helping kids meet their potential is what the class is about, Wecker said.

"In one of my prior classes, every kid was able to flip a crepe without using a spatula before they left," he said. "They didn't believe they could do it, but with enough encouragement they all did."

Although Casey's apron went to her ankles, she was receptive to Wecker's methods.

"Cutting is really hard, but it's fun," she said, chopping vegetables for the soup. "I never get to cut at home."

As the sweet potatoes, onions and leeks were stewing in the pot of hot broth, the youngsters trekked out to an herb garden behind the restaurant. Wecker's assistant, 18-year-old Alexandria Gutierrez, showed them how to pick sage.

"Make sure you pick nice green pieces," she told the kids. "You see how some of it has yellow on the leaves? Just leave that, and get the really good stuff."

After the children had gathered a sufficient amount of the herb, Gutierrez led them back to their cooking stations to work on the entree - a root vegetable hash and duck breast.

Each of the youngsters received a variety of vegetables that included a candy-striped beet, a golden beet, a carrot, and a turnip. Gutierrez showed the group how to clean and prepare the vegetables.

One of the young cooks, Tony Blount of Elkridge, said he not only honed his cooking skills but also learned about some new vegetables. "I have never heard of a candy-striped or golden beet," the 13-year-old said as he shaved the top layer off the beet.

"There are a lot of new vegetables here today that I've never seen before," he said. "I want to make this for my family so I can show them some of the things we used."

Shannon Smith also was discovering some new vegetables. She likened the class to her favorite television food shows.

"Picking sage from a garden, and learning to dice and chop vegetables, is something the real chefs do," said the 12-year-old Arbutus resident as she sniffed a fresh beet.

"I watch the Food Network every day, and this is the kind of cooking the chefs do on their shows," she said. "I'm usually a picky eater. But even though I haven't eaten these foods before, it smells good so I'm going to try it."

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