I can still recall, with resentful detail, the results of my middle-school home economics class: the macaroni and cheese that looked like mush and tasted the same, the hideous jumper in blue pastel checks with its jagged hem which I wore once, foolishly. My teacher was kindly and soft-spoken, baffled by her hostile students and our envy of the power tools in shop class, mostly because girls weren't allowed. I left that class with a taste for gender politics and Kraft Dinner, both of which proved more sustaining than, say, rock formations in Grade 9 geography. And at least, as one friend recalled to me last week, the boys in my grade didn't traipse upstairs to be fed our burnt casseroles.
Today, no one is forcing the girls to take cooking class at Winnipeg's Miles Macdonell Collegiate – they have to get in line behind the boys. Here, in the classroom kitchen of chef-turned-teacher Darlyne Brajkovich, eager students from Grade 9 to 12 learn how to use spices, and make the "five mother sauces," the roots of fine French cuisine. Within weeks, Brajkovich tosses the recipe books all together, to encourage the class to experiment. The final exam steals, quite purposely, from reality television: Students are divided into small groups, set before a table of random ingredients and given two hours to create an original meal, properly "plated."
Brajkovich claims: "By the time they leave at the end of the semester, they don't want to eat out of a box." Students, who choose cooking from a list of elective classes, race to sign up – she teaches 30-plus kids at time. Look inside on a given day, and you'll see boys, who now sometimes outnumber girls in class, busy minding their Thai consommé on the stove.
Thank you, Gordon Ramsay. Teachers such as Brajkovich give full credit to the bombastic British celebrity chief and his Food Network brethren for making cooking so cool that teenagers – boys, in particular – are clamouring to learn. To be fair, it's been a while since home economics was segregated by sex. But it's still remarkable that the most traditional class, which generations of cringing girls considered lessons in forced domesticity, could be transformed by innovative schools into a trendy training ground for future dinner duty, with 17-year-old boys boasting about their vinaigrette.
There are similar models of Brajkovich's class in schools across the country, with much more on their plate than homemade spaghetti and meatballs. At Calgary's Twelve Mile Coulee school, four cooking classes have been added to the curriculum after overwhelming demand from both boys and girls. Karen Larsen, the career program co-ordinator at the Vancouver School board and a former home economics teacher, notes the rise of boys both in cooking classes and chef apprenticeship programs. A similar boy-friendly trend has also been noticed by Greg Chang, the founder of SuperChefs, which offers cooking classes at Starwood hotels across North America.
The popularity of cooking classes speaks to how much food has become art in our society. Daniel D'Ottavio, 17, who decided to become a chief while taking Brajkovich's classes, says his friends post pictures of their homemade meals on Twitter. But let's not give too much credit to Diners, Drive-ins and Dives; the trend toward a gender-neutral kitchen has also been led by parents divvying up mealtime responsibilities at home.
"In my family, we don't think it's fair that one person should have to cook the whole supper or breakfast," says Jeremy Kinnear, a Grade 8 student at Twelve Mile Coulee. "My dad teaches me how to make pasta. My mom teaches me how to make cookies. The bread I learned all by myself."
He may not be their target demographic, but Zac Buller, who is also taking a cooking class at Twelve Mile Coulee this semester, is a devoted fan of the Food Network. Between basketball, theatre and Grade 7 homework, he PVRs Top Chef and Sweet Genius, but his favourite is Michael Symon, one of the network's top-tier Iron Chefs. "He's spontaneous," says Zac, who is 12. "His food is good but funky." Zac has even hosted friends in his kitchen for a competitive bake-off; he made fudge at Christmas.
As he explains it, the appeal of cooking class is that unlike math and English, the answers aren't clear-cut and there are fewer rules. Taking chances, in fact, is rewarded. Zac's current course, called Digital Bits and Bites, cleverly combines cooking with multimedia: Students blog and create videos about their creations. With all the pedagogical hand-wringing about how to engaged media-savvy teens while teaching them critical thinking and collaboration (to say nothing of essential life skills), a creative cooking class that students attend enthusiastically sounds like the full-meal deal.
"There's a lot of freedom," says Mikal Sokolowski, 17, a Grade 12 student at Miles Macdonell, who is also a member of the school's team in a city-wide Iron Chef competition. "You can experiment and take risks."
The cherry on top should be obvious: Research shows that learning what to do with a few fresh ingredients in the fridge might improve the health of a nation with a unhealthy appetite for fast and sodium-rich foods. In Britain, where concerns about obesity are equally pressing, cooking classes have become mandatory for students between the ages of 11 and 14.
Carved tomato roses may not become de rigueur at family dinners, but here's one more useful skill that all young chefs in Darlyne Brajkovich's class must duly learn. ("Ms. B is a stickler about this," volunteers Daniel.) When you're finished, you do the dishes.