Schuyler Pettibone is a veteran of the cupcake wars.
“I make them really weird,” she said. “Last time I made a giant pile of fondant with spikes to look like a sun. It was gross — way too much sugar.”
This time, the 12-year-old stacks two Funfetti cupcakes and covers them with green buttercream icing and pink fondant for the Food Network-inspired finale to the baking class at Flour Power Kids Cooking Studio in Cary.
Another baker wins bragging rights for a pair of cupcakes topped with crabs, but all seven contestants act like winners as they devour their sweet creations.
Youngsters like these, hooked on competitive cooking shows like “Chopped,” “Iron Chef America” and “Cupcake Wars,” want to be like chefs Bobby Flay or Cat Cora. So parents are turning to local cooking schools to train their enthusiastic offspring.
Tammy Herr, owner-operator of Flour Power at Parkside, says most of her students come in with some basic cooking skills, either from lessons at home or from television. Parents see her classes as a way to build on that knowledge.
“We get groups of kids who come in here and they blow me away with how much they know just from watching the food channel,” she said.
Wynton Mann, founder and chef at Wynton’s World, another Cary cooking school, offers a Food Network summer camp to take advantage of this excitement. It’s his most popular offering, selling out faster than any of his other camps.
“Parents may have very little time, so it’s harder to cook at home,” he said. “Then you have to be in the mood to cook. So when the Food Network comes out with all these different shows, it’s getting kids more excited about cooking.”
Depending on the age of the student, these classes can be as challenging as any offered to adults. In Mann’s pasta class, kids 7 and older will make the dough, then the pasta, but younger kids may just feed the dough through the machine.
“I give students more leeway,” he said. “I think if you let them go, they will surprise you. I’ve seen it in almost every class. Once they get engaged in what they’re doing, they tend to do a great job.
“Parents can’t believe their kids are making this, when they see the recipes I send them.”
Mann describes a recent class in which students made poached salmon, a Hollandaise sauce and a salad with a vinaigrette dressing. And while his students might not make everything from scratch every time they cook, he says it’s important they know what homemade food tastes like.
“They see the process, then they taste it. It’s completely different to them,” Mann said. “Everything’s fresh, and I explain to them the importance of that versus store-bought.”
The other key lesson Mann hopes his students learn is how to substitute ingredients, to suit themselves or to make a familiar recipe healthier.
“I ask them, ‘How can you make this healthier and yet taste good?’ … And then we change it and try it. Some are hits, some are misses, but they’ve tried it,” he said.
Shelia Stanton, manager of the Fuquay-Varina Growers Market, also emphasizes healthy choices in the classes she leads at the town’s community kitchen.
“Maybe they’ll go home and say, ‘Hey, Mom, let’s do something with squash and zucchini instead of eating french fries today.’ We hope we are teaching that,” she said.
The market provides free cooking classes for kids about once a month. The popular classes are capped at 10 students, but the community center can arrange special classes for scouts, homeschoolers and other groups.
Many of Stanton’s classes link cooking and where food comes from. One class may talk about raising chickens and end with a meal of scrambled eggs. During the spring and summer, she teaches children some basic gardening skills and how to prepare local produce.
Another vital topic is kitchen safety — using a knife, washing hands and being cautious around hot surfaces, she says.
“When you’re using the stove, don’t run around close to the stove, jumping up and down, acting silly,” she said. “Take it seriously.”
And sometimes it helps that the teaching isn’t being done by a parent.
“When you learn something away from home, from an instructor, you’re likely to pay attention and take it more seriously than at home,” said Stanton.
Wynton’s World has classes for children starting at age 2, birthday parties, summer and trackout camps, and teen boot camps. Parent-child classes and adult instruction are also available.
Flour Power Kids Cooking Studio offers a variety of classes, parties and camps for kids.
Coming soon: Taste Buds Kitchen is scheduled to open soon in Apex,
Trying new things
All three instructors agree that as they learn how to cook, the kids also taste new things. Stanton might cook a vegetable like butternut squash with her class, showing them that healthy foods can taste good.
Herr says that kids are also more likely to eat what they make.
“You would not believe how many times I hear a parent say, ‘I can’t believe they ate that,’ or ‘She won’t eat that,’ whispering it to me,” said Herr. “Also there’s peer pressure; if your friends are eating it or your older siblings are, then you’re more likely to try it.”
“Kids feel that they can make mistakes or at least taste something,” Mann said. “That’s another good thing about kids’ classes. They feel open when they come in.”
And even if a kid never makes it to the Food Network, these classes teach valuable skills and give kids a boost of confidence.
“The kids are in that kitchen and they’re making their own food,” said Stanton. “For a 6-year-old kid, it gives them a sense of independence.”