They start at the prep table, expertly chopping lettuce and vegetables for the evening’s main dish, chicken caesar salad, before heading to individual work stations to sauté the meat.
Under the watchful eye of head chef Robert Collins, junior chefs ranging in age from 8 to 13 are building self-confidence while learning food preparation and cooking skills at a unique facility that recently opened in downtown Mundelein.
Youthage Culinary is a nonprofit founded by Collins and fellow chef Mario Feijoo, military veterans who have more than 40 years of food industry experience between them.
The school offers three categories of hands-on culinary classes – Tiny Chef, for ages 4 to 7; Junior Chef, for ages 8 to 13; and Senior Chef, for ages 13 to 18. Prices range from $25 per session to $399 per month. Youthage also has cooking demonstrations and can host birthday parties. Several Girl Scout troops have already visited.
Sessions are held several days a week and last about an hour and a half. The younger students are taught healthy eating habits and age-appropriate kitchen skills while preparing a variety of dishes.
“They’re taking these skills home and showing their parents how to cook healthy meals,” said Collins, of North Chicago. “The whole process is to build up their confidence and show them they can do this.”
Youthage is not designed like a classroom, so you won’t find rows of desks and chairs,” said Feijoo, of Wauconda. “Here you’re learning hands-on, not just watching us.”
Once the dish is prepared, everyone sits down to enjoy the meal together. “We’re big believers in breaking bread,” Feijoo said.
Taste of success
The tiny and junior chef classes are proving to be quite popular, with students coming from as far as Antioch.
Akema Johnson, a mom from Waukegan, learned of Youthage through Facebook and asked her son Jayden, 9, if he’d like to try it.
“It’s different. It’s the only thing of its kind for kids,” she said. “He really enjoys it. He likes to cook for my mom. Last week he made salmon and fettuccine.”
Jayden is new to cooking but is learning fast. “I like mixing stuff and baking cakes, brownies and cookies,” he said.
Youthage instructor Tracy Wilson, of Waukegan, gained experience teaching kids to cook through Community Action Partnership of Lake County (CAP), which offers programs to help families find self-sufficiency.
“We start out learning very basic skills of food preparation,” she said. “I tell them it’s not like those cooking shows on TV.”
Safety always comes first, said Wilson, recalling a recent conversation with junior chef Candy Rangel, 9, of Mundelein.
“Candy would say, ‘Well, my grandma does it like this and would never do it that way.’ I said there are plenty of ways to do things, but we want to do it in the safest way.”
Candy and her sister Lisa, 11, said they enjoy taking the class together and sharing what they've learned with their family.
“We just started cooking at home,” Candy said.
Isabella Feijoo, 11, has grown up watching her dad cook and is quite comfortable in the kitchen. “It’s fun,” she said. “There’s so much stuff you can do with everything.”
Wilson said she’d like to see the junior chefs progress to the senior level, an advanced program that will begin in the near future once more students have committed.
Workforce preparation, accreditation
Senior Chefs, for ages 13 to 18, is a six-month program designed to teach more advanced culinary techniques, covering everything from preparing steaks and seafood to etiquette and customer service. It is designed to prepare students for entry-level jobs in the food service or hospitality industries, according to Youthage literature.
It would be ideal if restaurants and food service businesses looked to Youthage in the future to hire new employees, knowing the kind of training students have received, the owners said.
Youthage's goal is to become a nationally recognized, accredited culinary program.
“We’re big believers in dreams,” Feijoo said. “We want a Youthage in every major city.”
Other long-term goals of Youthage include starting a food truck and private catering team and establishing a traveling competition team.
Being a nonprofit organization, Youthage is seeking donations of kitchen supplies and equipment and funds to offset the cost of classes for students who need financial aid.
Youthage Culinary is located at 508 N. Seymour Ave., in Mundelein. Learn more at www.youthageculinary.com or call (847) 865-1010.