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Mardi Michels: Making a Difference in the Kitchen

Mar 7, 2012 at 10:50 AM Chime in now

Mardi Michels is a Toronto-based teacher and popular food blogger, who runs a cooking club for boys once a week in the school where she teaches. We caught up with Mardi and asked her to tell us a little bit more about her impressive cooking club, which recently caught the attention of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution website.
Where do you teach, and what led you to decide to start a cooking club for boys?
I teach French as a second language to Grades 3-6 (ages 7-12) at an all-boys’ school in Toronto. Teachers offer clubs once a week after school, and after spending a few years trying to find something that the boys would love to do (and that I can actually instruct them on!) I finally found my groove with Les Petits Chefs cooking club. I’ve run the cooking club since January 2010, and now there’s a wait list!.
Can you walk us through a typical lesson?
We meet once a week in the school science lab - we don’t have a kitchen, so we work mainly with hot plates, though we do have access to an oven in the dining hall kitchen from time to time. The boys are with me for only an hour, so whatever I choose to cook or bake must be packed away in Tupperware containers and in their backpacks before they leave that day - and preferably, the lab needs to be tidied and cleaned, and the dishwasher packed and ready to go. It’s no easy feat, but the challenge each week reminds me how much one can accomplish in terms of getting a “real food” meal on the table in under an hour. If I can do this with 10 little boys in a science lab, most anyone can!

Why Jamie Oliver?
Right now we are working our way through Jamie Oliver’s Meals in Minutes. We’ve also made most of the recipes in Jamie’s Food Revolution cookbook. I like Jamie’s recipes because they are not “dumbed down” food for kids, and they are also pretty straightforward. If we can make chicken tikka masala from scratch in 60 minutes (including the curry paste), then that’s a testament to a well-written, do-able recipe. Jamie’s recipes are not too “out there” in terms of flavours either so it’s a great way of introducing little palates to new taste experiences without shocking them so much they might never try something new again.

What are some of the challenges and surprise that come with teaching young boys to cook?
One challenge is that I find especially the younger students tend to have very firm ideas of what they will and won’t eat, so it’s sometimes hard to sell them on certain dishes (especially ones with a lot of vegetables!) – even just asking them to take one bite to taste. I tell them they have to taste it to be able to tell me they don’t like it and many times they actually surprise themselves by liking something when they eat it at home (I know this because the parents tell me!).
The flip side of that is that they are, after all, little boys who are pretty fearless. They attack complex recipes and techniques, and tasks like chopping onions, peeling and mincing garlic, and chopping up raw meat with great gusto and a fabulous “can do” attitude that you only get with kids. We’ve had our fair share of fingers cut (including mine) and we’ve had to use the eye bath once or twice (those jalapeños can be deadly(, but nothing drastic.

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