When I started my cooking school for children 15 years ago, all I wanted was work that was home-based.
Starting with nine children, Tiny Kitchen grew slowly over the years. I grew along with it, perfecting the completely hands-on approach I adopted from the very start, as I taught kids what I liked to cook myself when I was their age.
I have been teaching kids aged 4 to 19. Having had more than 5,000 “graduates,” Filipinos and foreigners, Tiny Kitchen has taught me a lot about kids. But I learned the most from the students with special needs.
When parents of children with autism started asking if their kids could enroll, I did not see any reason to refuse. Some of the children were accompanied by “shadow teachers” and I was supposed to direct my instructions to these trusted adults instead of talking directly to the kids and looking them in the eye.
But as classes got busy, I would forget and talk directly to the kids, who looked me in the eye and did what I told them to do.
Most of them blended in with the rest of the class. I found that cooking could be very democratic. Working side by side, although mentored one on one, no one noticed (or cared) if kids with learning disabilities were slower than the rest or at par only with those half their age.
Some stood out for a number of reasons—Nathan (not his real name), a good looking mestizo kid would let out a loud “Yes, your highness!” or “Yes, your majesty!” every time I gave him an instruction and several heads would turn.
No one failed to notice Dexter (also not his real name), a precocious little boy who kept turning the lights on and off, making the kitchen look like a disco with flashing lights.
Dexter also inadvertently killed all the fish in one of our aquariums by dumping into it half a kilo of rabbit food.
Other kids were physically handicapped. When a mother told me her son was “lacking digits,” I did not know what she meant until I saw him struggle to grasp a wooden spoon. He had one hand without a thumb, which made it hard to work with most kitchen equipment. I do not even know how we completed the course.
Later, I had an extrovert female student with only three digits on each hand. It took a while for me to realize that because she was so nimble and adept despite the missing fingers. She was also the sunniest kid in class.
When it comes to cooking, special children are just like everyone else. They love the same pastas, pizzas and cupcakes, even if some of them have to use ingredients like gluten-free flour or dairy-free butter.
For them, cooking, just as it is for the other students, is also a very practical skill to acquire as they can use it for life.
All of them are proud of their culinary accomplishments and it boosts their confidence even more when parents and grandparents praise their dishes.
I have taught kids to measure accurately but I can never measure the lessons I have learned from them, especially when they seem to be faced with so many obstacles at such a young age.
The student I admire the most is a 12-year-old with dwarfism, who refused to be seated with the 5-year-olds, who were her size, and insisted on working alongside kids her age, who were bigger. She may have been petite but her confidence and poise (even her spot-on fashion sense) made her nothing less than a giant in our eyes.
Tiny Kitchen (tels. 4102279, 0917-5393940) is at 31 Scout Tobias, Quezon City. It runs classes for kids all summer long. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.