Small Chefs, Big Wins: A Fort Myers Cooking School Changes the way Children View the KitchenNov 23, 2020 05:00PM ● By BROOKE MORTON
You might think a 7-year-old in a kitchen is capable of nothing more than stirring the cookie dough or licking the spoon. Lauren Daniels knows better. She’s the force behind Little Chefs in Training, the Fort Myers-based cooking and baking school that she opened in 2017. Its mission is to teach the fundamentals of cooking to children ages 5 to 16, from baking cupcakes to preparing lamb chops—yes, lamb chops.
When working with younger children, Daniels finds they’re just as creative and able to follow instructions as teenagers. “I don’t limit them in their ability. It might go slower to teach them something, but it’s the same lesson.” In fact, Daniels notes, “The younger kids are often better at learning because they pick it up quicker.”
At the school, located where U.S. Route 41 meets Boy Scout Drive, Daniels leads a host of classes. Some of the most popular are held on Sundays, focusing on baking treats from English muffins and cookies to breads and Boston cream whoopee pies.
These classes have become so popular, in fact, that Daniels felt bad for parents who had to keep re-registering their children every week. The solution? She introduced a membership, which grants youngsters unlimited access to Sunday classes.
“We were seeing some kids here all the time,” she explains. “It can get expensive to be coming in every week, and I wanted to keep them here to help them learn as much as they want to.”
Little Chefs also offers after-school sessions, often three-weeks long and focusing on one particular cookbook. One such series focused on recipes in the Sister Pie cookbook, and another on the flavors of Gyoza: The Ultimate Dumpling Cookbook.
Following in the tradition of Food Network programming, she also challenges children ages 11 to 16 in cooking competitions every two months. The last one focused on burgers. “First we teach them to cook a burger properly—we covered beef burgers, veggie burgers and a combo patty with beef and Italian sausage,” she says.
Then the children provide a list of ingredients they will need, and the following week they test the ideas. They get another chance to adjust their concepts before the big day. The recent event drew a crowd of 60 to watch 12 chefs compete. The winning burger was a beef patty with fig jam, Brie, bacon and arugula—designed by a 16-year-old girl.
The competitions are new for Daniels. She’s undertaken three so far and has plans to keep going. The contests, like Little Chefs itself, are wildly popular.
This is the first business Daniels has launched—and it’s what her “gut led her to do.” She went to culinary school, but as a married mother of four, she didn’t think the nonstop hours of restaurant ownership would fit with her lifestyle.
It took two years for her to decide that she wanted to merge her passion for cooking with her love of children. She launched her first course, an eight-week series called “Gobble Up the Bible,” at her local church. “My husband came in one day and said, ‘I think this is the idea,’ ” adds Daniels.
Then she had to find the location and build the school from scratch, adding 12 gas stoves, an industrial fryer, commercial ovens, commercial mixers and more. Daniels loves the space and what she’s created—and while it’s available for adults to book private cooking parties—the classes will remain just for children.
“Kids are far more accepting and it’s easy to teach them,” she notes. “Plus, a lot of parents are afraid to let the kids in the kitchen, so this is often a new experience for them.”
It was for Owen Kurtz, 12, who has since gone on to run his own special-events-only food cart called Floppy Joes, dishing up sloppy Joes with a twist. “The teachers are amazing—they make sure you learn everything correctly and they are nice when you are doing something wrong,” he says.
Likewise, the school was also a game-changer for Cameron Ball, who took his first class with Daniels at age 16. “These classes brought out the creativity in me that I may have lost at a younger age,” he says. Ball has become expert at making many dishes, including his favorite, potato gnocchi.
He also raises an excellent point: “Really, cooking is a lost art because they don’t teach it in schools anymore.” (It may not be taught in as many middle and high schools as in previous years, but it’s certainly taught where Ball was headed to this fall—Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, Ireland.)
Of course, all the students need not attend culinary school to be considered a success by Daniels. She’s just happy to watch each child’s journey: “When they come in for that first class, they are nervous. Then they work through the process, and what I love most is watching them excel.”
Brooke Morton is a freelance writer specializing in the outdoors. She’s also the founder of Sober Outside, a travel company for teetotaling adventure-lovers.
FOR MORE INFORMATIONLittle Chefs in Training
10970 S. Cleveland Ave., Fort Myers