Teaching teenagers how to cook

1005

It is a truth universally acknowledged that teenagers know everything, according to Jules Crosbie, and that they are always right. So, he wonders, why can’t they cook?

img5180Former Brussels resident Midge Shirley can take youngsters from clueless to competent in the kitchen in just a few days. She runs one-week residential cookery classes for small groups of teenagers at her country house in the Charente-Maritime region of France. Thank you letters from the students and their parents confirm that Midge’s Teencooks formula really works.

The courses are held in the spring and summer school holidays, for a maximum of five students at a time, aged 15-18. They arrive on a Sunday and leave the following Saturday. Sometimes they are dropped off by parents holidaying in the area; otherwise they are collected from and returned to the nearest railway stations or airports by Midge and her husband. From Brussels and Lille there are good train connections by TGV.

SAFE ENVIRONMENT

A Teencooks student is often accompanied by a best friend from school, so they will share a twin room in the lovely old stone house. The students have their own bathrooms and a sitting-room equipped with TV and DVD player. The house is located next to a river, set in a quiet hamlet dotted with old watermills and the occasional small chateau. It has a spacious walled garden and a family-sized swimming-pool.

“It’s what’s called a safe environment,” says Midge. “So it’s really boring if you want to go binge-drinking among the bright lights.”

“What they most like are puddings”

Co-author of the cookery book A Taste of the Belgian Provinces, Midge was a restaurant critic in Brussels, where she also ran her own cookery school, giving adult evening classes. While I was meeting her in France, a neighbouring Brit came round with his dog. Midge mentioned that she had just bought some fresh monkfish liver at a bargain price, which would perk up the dog. But would she feed it to her teenagers? “Well, they’d probably find it too fishy and strange. What they most like are puddings.”

LOCAL PRODUCE

img5178This is where her experience comes in as regards designing the content of the courses. Students learn at least three recipes a day, which they then eat for lunch and supper around a table on the garden terrace. The cookery lessons include plenty of knowledge about food and how to shop for it and include trips to nearby markets, where there is an abundance of good local produce. There is also lots of practical, hands-on culinary instruction, starting with basics such as knife skills and mixing dough. “You can’t assume they know what seems pretty elementary, so I have to be attentive,” says Midge.

“Some of my students clearly do have ability in the kitchen, but others are first-timers.” As well as preparation and laying the table, the less glamorous tasks of clearing up and stacking the dishwasher afterwards are also included.

RELAXED

img5182Since the courses take place in school holidays, the daily schedule is fairly relaxed, with time off for swimming, sunbathing, table tennis or maybe going to see a Bastille  a local teenager to join the students and improve their conversational French. Many of them are awaiting exam results, and the cookery course provides a useful distraction as well as a week’s relief for equally exam-stressed parents.

Despite its rural location, the house has broadband internet access and the recipe instructions can be consulted with the swipe of a floury finger on the iPad in its kitchen docking station.

When they go home, armed with a set of the recipes they have practised, do the students remember what they have learned? “Mostly they seem to want to take over the kitchen immediately they get home,” says Midge. And it’s not just a passing fad. “One of last year’s students emailed me only a couple of weeks ago to say she was making the slow roast leg of lamb with dauphinoise potatoes, followed by hot chocolate pudding.”

In this age of celebrity chefs and competitive TV cookery programmes, Midge is keen to point out that what she teaches is an introduction to home cooking. “I am not a chef and this is not a restaurant. It’s an ordinary kitchen. There are lots of upmarket cookery courses on offer for adults in beautiful villas in Provence or Tuscany, with wine-tasting and other add-ons. But this is about cooking for teenagers. And they don’t just learn from me – I get a lot of pleasure being around young people and catching up with their view of life.”


A week at Teencooks costs £475 or Euro/$ equivalent; maximum five students per course; nearest TGV: Poitiers; nearest airports: La Rochelle or Poitiers; www.teencooks.co.uk T.+33 546246509