A lot of people say they grew up cooking. Right? You hear it often. Well, this isn’t your average ‘I used to help by licking the cake batter out of the bowl’ story. Stacey Ornstein really grew up cooking. In fact, her mother gave her and her two brothers a day of the week, each, on which they got to pick the recipe and cook dinner for the family. Tuesdays, Ornstein was on duty.
“And I was always in charge of making the salad,” Ornstein explains. Even when she was so little that she needed to stand on a tall chair to reach the counter. “I was really into decorating the salad and making OCD mathematical patterns on top of the lettuce with tomatoes or carrots or whatever it was. I just remember from a really young age, just always pulling a chair into the kitchen and being up at the counter, rolling out dough or sprinkling something on chicken.”
[A young Stacey Ornstein commands the kitchen]
That early investment in what went onto her own plate made Ornstein a real foods advocate at heart. So when, several years ago, she found herself working as a teacher for an art education nonprofit, she of course noticed what her students were eating. And it wasn’t pretty. Who’s going to create their best artwork on a diet of fast food? Who’s going to create their best anything that way? “I was just upset by it,” she says. “I was in charge of ordering food, and so it was, ‘hey, can I order something that’s not pizza or hamburgers,’ and I was met with a lot of resistance by my supervisors. It was, ‘no, it’s not even worth it. They’ll never eat it.’”
But Ornstein knew that wasn’t true. She knew that kids are incredibly adventurous, food-wise, when they’re given real exposure to (read: ownership and tactile experience with) healthy grub. She also knew that it wasn’t art, after all, that she felt compelled to teach. It was cooking.
To build a cooking school
Today, Ornstein’s food and cooking education business, Allergic to Salad, is booming. She and her ten fabulous educators teach semester and year-long after school series (they’ve got over 30 classes happening across NYC at the moment), and also offer free classes at 18 partner schools (pre-K through middle school). They’re currently working on partnering with some Westchester and Long Island schools, and hope someday to go national.
It’s not hard to see why demand is through the roof. “People are so eager to do a free cooking class,” says Ornstein. “I’ve had people come in from Crown Heights to a class in Astoria. Because most cooking classes, you’re talking about $70, $80 or more per class, and they’re making cupcakes. We’re doing real food with a real chef, and they’re free.”
It’s true. Ornstein and her team teach real food, and real food only. Anything in a pocket tends to be a hit, she says. Ravioli, empanadas, spanakopita. Kids love to cook anything they can really get their hands in. “There’s so many more steps involved with pocket foods,” Ornstein explains. “You’ve gotta get a rolling pin out, and you get to touch things. Normally when you’re cooking, you don’t really get to touch what you’re cooking. You use a spatula, or tongs.”
What’s Ornstein’s favorite thing about teaching cooking to kids, some of whom may never have eaten a fresh apple or strawberry before? “I always give kids a cookbook at the end of the semester, and the best for me is when they come back from break and tell me that they cooked the recipes with their families over break,” she says.
Ornstein remembers one little girl whose parents made gazpacho each weekend, but always gave her chicken fingers to eat that night, instead. After making gazpacho in class with Ornstein – and loving it! – this student went home to announce that she would now be joining her parents each week for the fresh, hearty, tomato-based soup. Her mother was thrilled, says Ornstein. She’d simply never imaged that her daughter would like the soup, and so she’d just never asked, never offered. A common mistake.
Raising money to partner with fabulous chefs
Periodically, Allergic to Salad raises money via ioby to outfit new partner schools with the equipment they need (kiddie knives, measuring spoons, mixing bowls etc) before they can receive those awesomely free cooking classes. The organization also raises money now and then to develop chef-led classes with partner restaurants, which then, as part of the deal, keep on the menu for a week whatever dish the kids learned to make. All proceeds from sales of that dish then get donated back to Allergic to Salad. “We love our restaurant partners,” gushes Ornstein. “They really give so much.”
If you haven’t yet met your recommended daily intake of adorable photos of kids in chefs’ hats, we’ve got your back. Just click over to Allergic to Salad’s current campaign page. And if you happen to know any chefs or restaurants that might want to partner up, Ornstein would love to hear from you at: Stacey@allergictosalad.com. She’s particularly keen at the moment to team up with a sushi restaurant or a good ramen spot.
Similarly, if your child attends a public school that you think would be interested in bringing in free cooking classes, Ornstein would love to hear from you. And to stay up to date on Allergic happenings, follow the group on Facebook or Instagram. They’re active on both.
Bringing it home
It probably goes without saying that Ornstein practices what she preaches, at home. “My two and a half year old has been at the stove with me since he was 18 months,” she says. “Anything we’re making on the stovetop he has to be stirring. He flips pancakes, cracks open eggs. He makes his egg every morning; he comes in, puts his apron on, cracks the egg into the skillet, gets the butter out, sprinkles on salt and pepper.”
Recently, Ornstein’s son was on green bean stirring duty, and wanted to add some cinnamon – his favorite spice. This displeased sidelong glance is what resulted when Ornstein nixed the idea. But never mind. At this rate, we imagine he’ll have full kitchen autonomy before he hits ten, at which time maybe he’ll be free to sprinkle in as much cinnamon as he likes? Stay tuned.
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