Cookie Till didn’t install a small home-style kitchen at the Atlantic City Boys and Girls eight years ago thinking it would drive business to Steve & Cookie’s, her upscale bayfront Margate restaurant.
That’s not how Till rolls. Known as much for her community generosity as she is for her 20-year-old dining room, her goal with the clubhouse kitchen was to simply take young kids ages 7 to 14 and teach them the basics of cooking, so they knew their way around a home kitchen.
“They’re learning how to cut and chop, they’re learning about vegetables, healthy foods, learning how to sit down and eat with one another and clean up,” Till explains of how the weekly cooking program works. “You know, just kind of fun things that they may not do on a daily basis, and we expose them to it. So it’s just been a huge success — the kids love it.”
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But for the past several years, Till and others who volunteer to help her with the kids in the kitchen have taken their Cooking 101 program out of the Boys & Girls Club on Pennsylvania Avenue one night of the year and put it on a rather large community stage.
The kids will prepare a couple of dishes at the annual 2018 South Jersey’s Men R’ Cookin’ event, which, over the last 16 years, has emerged as the leading Boys & Girls Club fundraiser.
Men R’ Cookin’ returns to the Waterfront Conference Center at Harrah’s Resort 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21.
The event features a mix of both professional and amateur male chefs and cooks — like Robert Levenson of Resorts, Chirs Bellino, formerly of Smithville Inn, who just opened Bellino’s Market, and amateur chef Kenneth Jones, an electrician for the IBEW Local 351 — preparing their signature dishes (Director of Entertainment Publications for The Press Scott Cronick and Press of A.C. Publisher Mark Blum, will be there, as well). Two of those dishes will be prepared by about 10 of the kids in Till’s weekly cooking class.
“About three years ago, (the club leaders) asked why don’t we bring the kids in (to cook at Men R’ Cookin’),” Till recalls during a recent phone chat from her restaurant. “They wanted us to bring the kids in and have them make some of the things that we make during the cooking classes on a weekly basis.”
A few days before the actual event, Till will lead her young cadre of chefs-in-training into the kitchen to get cracking on the two dishes they’ll prepare and serve to the estimated 500 guests.
This year, the team of 10 Boys & Girls Club members will prepare a broccoli and cheddar soup and something that was initially a foreign concept to the kids: quinoa burgers.
“The burgers are healthy, they have mushrooms in them, other vegetables, and the kids like them,” Till says. “They’ve never seen quinoa before, but they don’t care. It’s a healthy vegetarian dish.”
Till believes the youngest kids in the cooking program aren’t too young to be learning their way around a home kitchen and mastering the basics of how to prepare foods. The class also introduces them to different dishes that may fly under their pantry and refrigerator radar at home.
“Preliminarily, we’re just trying to expose them to things they may not have seen before and just learn that healthy eating isn’t something that’s weird,” Till says. The class could also pique some interest in the kids about pursuing a career in the food world.
Between the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College, to the many job opportunities in South Jersey’s and Atlantic City’s expanding hospitality industry, there should be plenty of job opportunities. Some of the kids Till is teaching now will soon become college students looking to find their places in the world.
The enthusiasm with which the cooking program at the Boys & Girls Club has received has Till and the club’s leadership thinking about expansion.
“We’re actually looking at putting in a bigger kitchen, like a commercial kitchen, into the (clubhouse),” Till explains. “We’re starting with the young kids and showing them culinary skills and other job skills. I don’t think you can start too young, especially cooking. Feeding yourself, feeding your family, feeding other people is so gratifying. And if you find it’s something you really, really love and you want to do it as a job, that’s even better.”
Till and her volunteer teachers know they have to walk a fine line when they’re working with the children. They can’t continuously coddle them like little kids or else they won’t learn the true basics, Till says.
“They need to have supervision in the kitchen, but you can’t baby them because otherwise why do it?” Till asks rhetorically. “We do chopping, we do peeling, we’re working on the stove. But you have to learn that these are very focused skills, so (the kids) can’t be talking to someone else or looking at someone else. They need to focus on (what they’re doing).”
There will certainly be no coddling at the Men R’ Cookin’ event, as Till’s class will be competing against chefs from places like Smithville Inn, Knife & Fork Inn and Dock’s Oyster House. Their quinoa creations will be one of many dishes available to guests of the annual fundraising event.