After I attended the pop-up restaurant on Friday, I was inspired to interview Chef Shai Mandel, owner of Rooks to Cooks. I wanted to understand more about the importance of culinary education for kids and how the summer camps help instill life skills that impact kids in a positive way.
Our mission is simple: we will empower our students to become more independent by building self-confidence and supporting self-expression through culinary education. ~ Chef Shai
Monica: Were you always a chef and what made you choose this line of profession?
Chef Shai: As long as I can remember I have always loved to cook and feed others. Cooking for people is a direct line to my heart; it is the way I show others I care, that I love them, and help cheer them up when they are down. For me, sharing food and breaking bread with people is the best way to build relationships and connect. I guess you can say I was always a chef. My first jobs were always in the industry and I balanced my degrees (Kinesiology, teachers college and culinary school) with working in the field because I loved learning and growing as a chef. I chose this profession because I have a natural talent and affinity for cooking and I appreciate the creative freedom it offers. Cooking is fun and I love the hands-on aspects of the work, and naturally I liked working hard, haha! The 14-16 hour days and working non-stop without breaks helped me prepare for entrepreneurship.
Monica: What is it about teaching that you enjoy the most?
Chef Shai: That’s a tough question! I love sharing my knowledge and engaging with others about a topic that I am passionate about. At the end of the day, it’s simply working with other people, building relationships and connections. There is nothing more rewarding than having a hand in equipping a child or even an adult with new skills, knowledge, passion and the confidence to take what they’ve learned and apply it to their lives.
Monica: Describe Rooks to Cooks.
Chef Shai: Rooks to Cooks is an innovative culinary school for kids and adults. Currently we run 12 locations of children’s cooking camps (which are more like culinary summer schools), as well as, in-school after school programs, in-class workshops, and birthday parties. We are in the midst of building out our very first permanent location. We recognize and celebrate that each student is unique with their own learning goals and as a result we make sure that any course, class or program offered through Rooks to Cooks accommodates all students and their individual needs.
Our mission is simple: we will empower our students to become more independent by building self-confidence and supporting self-expression through culinary education. We most definitely push the boundaries of what youth can accomplish in the kitchen and are always finding new and fun ways to teach others how to cook and bake. We are currently at the forefront of kids cooking education and through educating youth strive to change the trajectory of where home cooking is going (or not going). We are confident we can actually make a real difference in this area and have seen a difference in the lives of our students as a result of participating in our programs. Empowering and educating children on both the skills they require in order to cook at home, and help reset their mindset is what we are here to do. We want youth to believe that they are contributing members of the family household and can be a tremendous help to their families if given the opportunity to do so.
Monica: What was your “ah-ha” moment when you decided to start Rooks to Cooks?
Chef Shai: My “ah-ha” moment was when I was in teachers college. I was in my third practicum, teaching grade 7 and 8 math, science and phys-ed, and as a fun side project I ran a cooking club. It was day one of the program, learning knife skills, and I was teaching the kids how to break down a red pepper. Out of 12 students, 4 had never seen a whole pepper before. They had only seen it already cut up. I, of course, expected that many, if not all, of the kids wouldn’t have used a knife before, but the fact that they hadn’t seen a whole pepper before really threw me for a loop! I knew there was a problem in the world and that people were growing up without strong food literacy skills, and I had already seen this with my university school friends. However, I didn’t realize the severity of the issue. It was then and there that I decided something needed to be done and that my life purpose was not to teach math, science and phys-ed, but instead to build something that would eradicate this disconnect for as many kids as possible. It is exciting to reflect back and I am proud that we are executing on that mission. So far we have had nearly 4,000 children come through the camps alone and upwards of 6,000 youth in total in 3 years!
Monica: What kind of life skills or “work experience” do you hope kids take away from this culinary program?
Chef Shai: The easiest to comment on is the life skills. I would say literally the food preparation skills such as knife skills, pan work, assembly type tasks, whisking, kneading, etc. In addition, there are many other soft skills such as group/team work, coping with stress and anxiety, learning to express themselves, find their inner voice, teach them to strive to be their best self, and gain real world perspective. Cooking is such a multi-dimensional activity. It is physical, social, mathematical, scientific, artistic, and it also incorporates language skills. It’s hard work and it’s good for students to feel what it’s like to do some grunt work. We also want to teach them how to make healthier food decisions and understand how to control their personal nutrition, but also teach them the environmental repercussions of certain food choices over others. All in all, we feel cooking is the perfect activity to best prepare these kids to face the challenges of the real world.
Monica: At what age should a child start cooking?
Chef Shai: As soon as their fine motor skills permit them to. Age is just a number and I have seen children as young as 2 start using sharp knives under direct supervision. As long as they understand that the activity itself poses risks and they are mature enough to assume those risks, go for it! You can purchase blade free knives and/or plastic knives that cut through soft things, even give toddlers a plastic knife and teach them to cut play dough using the appropriate hand position. The truth is that cooking comes with inherent risks which is why we work with protective equipment, such as non-cut gloves, however the sooner they learn, the more practice they will have, the better they will be and the sooner they can be independent. At the start, no matter what age they are, they will need that guidance and supervision.
Monica: What advice do you have for parents to encourage their kids to participate more in the kitchen?
Chef Shai: My advice would be to equip them with basic skills, such as knife skills and some pan work, etc. and also leave the prep lists for them (for example, fine dice 2 onions, peel 4 carrots, shred 1 block cheese, etc.) Imagine coming home after a long day at the office and your dinner prep is all done! If you yourself can’t teach them, send them to our camp or enrol them in one of our after school programs, we will take care of all the grunt work. Whether it is us or you, Step 1 has to be teaching them/equipping them with the skills and safety precautions. Step 2 is practice under supervision. Then, Step 3, once you feel safe to let them execute on their own then you are smooth sailing, leaving those prep lists and maybe have them plan a dinner once or twice a week. This will give them a sense of responsibility, not to mention saves YOU the time, energy, planning, workload to get nutritious and delicious home-cooked meals on your table. In addition, by having your kids involved in the cooking/prep they are 100% more inclined to eat what is being made. So say goodbye to the dinner table fights and say hello to a self-sufficient, skilled and confident kid who can be super helpful if given the opportunity.
Monica: Can you describe what goes on daily in your culinary summer camp? What is so unique about this?
Chef Shai: A whole ton! We kick off the day with a morning huddle where we talk about the focus for the day and share a quote of the day meant to teach them a lesson. For example, Be their authentic self, or Try their best, or Raise others up, etc. Then, we enter into Mise en Place prep where the kids gather and measure their ingredients. From there they see a full scale cooking demonstration and lesson conducted by their chefs, and finally execute the recipe in pairs. Then we clean down and do it all over again, upwards of 5 recipes a day! We, of course, take breaks between and run alternative games and activities outside; the priority however is cooking and executing the menu of the day. We always end the day with another huddle and go over what we learned and the highlights of the day.
The most unique feature of our program is, by far, the pop up restaurant. On Friday night of every 5-day camp session, families make reservations and partake in a 3-course meal that the campers create from start to finish. Our campers run the show working as the servers, bartenders, hosts, and chefs. All of the food and beverages served at the restaurant are 100% in-house made by the campers themselves and we really strive to impress! At the end of the meal, all the campers will receive a monetary tip, teaching them that hard work pays off, literally.
Helping kids to build their confidence and knowing we have equipped them with real life skills that will help them for years to come is most definitely the most rewarding part. I believe if we can build a confident generation of youth, we can eradicate this culture of hate that is so prevalent right now. Confident people raise others up, they don’t tear them down. ~Chef Shai
Monica: What kind of skills in the kitchen do you teach at the summer camps? What are your favourite dishes?
Chef Shai: All of them! We teach and offer our campers the opportunity to practice all skills from knife skills, pan work, baking, assembly, whisking, kneading, entry level butchery … you name it, we cover it! The skills differ slightly based on the program as we offer 8 different curriculum structures, however, the goal is equipping them with all the skills they need to cook at home. To comment on some of my favourite dishes, that’s a tough one! We executed over 400 this summer alone. I would say my favourites are crispy sriracha honey tofu with a soba noodle salad (the kids love that one too), Chicken piccata with creamy polenta, coconut vanilla gelato, and cod en papiollette.
Monica: Three years ago when you started Rooks to Cooks, did you think this would become so successful? You now have 12 locations across the GTA.
Chef Shai: I have, of course, had my moments of doubt as I’m sure all entrepreneurs have had, however, I always knew to my core that Rooks to Cooks would be successful. The main reason being that I’m a very dedicated, passionate and motivated perfectionist and when I put my mind to something I get it done. I have incredibly high standards and expectations for our program and only select team members who are equally dedicated and intrinsically motivated to do a great job. I knew that by focusing on our clients and ensuring that we always make decisions that are in their best interest we will be successful. At the end of the day, I do believe that our attention to detail, dedication to excellence and genuine care for our clientele’s happiness and well-being has contributed to our success.
Monica: Why do you think these culinary summer camps are so popular among parents and kids?
Chef Shai: Funny enough I don’t think culinary summer camps are popular right now. I think it’s still a very new idea and many families don’t even know we or other culinary camps exist. Once they do, it’s definitely an attractive idea, however, I believe we are only at the start of how popular they will become. Ultimately, I think they are and will continue to grow in popularity because parents want to enrol their children into programs that will help teach them a new skill. The summer is not only about childcare, it’s about exposing children to new activities and learning new things. Since most parents work, many do not cook anymore, and if they do they can’t imagine bringing their kids into the kitchen with them, so unfortunately kids aren’t learning to cook at home anymore. As such, they will need to learn this skill somewhere and where else is better than with Rooks to Cooks? They learn from industry professionals, get the time, space and opportunity to practice, and best news… NO MESS! Plus cooking is fun!!!!
Monica: What’s the most rewarding experience you ever had doing these summer camps?
Chef Shai: Oh man, that is a tough one! I wouldn’t say there is one specific moment or camper that sticks out, but for me it’s seeing the kids so proud of themselves and hearing their language change when they talk about themselves and their abilities. For example, at the start of the program we hear a lot of “I can’t”, “mine sucks”, “this is too hard” etc. but by the end of the week we hear “Wow, mine came our great”, “chef, try mine, it tastes so good!”, “This recipe is going to be easy” etc. Helping kids to build their confidence and knowing we have equipped them with real life skills that will help them for years to come is most definitely the most rewarding part. I believe if we can build a confident generation of youth, we can eradicate this culture of hate that is so prevalent right now. Confident people raise others up, they don’t tear them down.
Monica: Besides the summer camps, what other classes do you offer for after-school programs?
Chef Shai: We are currently working with schools to bring after school programs and in-school workshops to the schools. Our after school programs run for a maximum of 13 consecutive weeks and place emphasis on healthy eating. Our workshops are perfect to help support and reinforce the Ontario curriculum taught in class. Not only do they fit perfectly with the health and nutrition curriculum, but they are also awesome ways to teach students math, language and science in a hands-on and practical way. For example, our vinaigrette visionary workshop can be tweaked to teach students about properties and matter or we can focus on learning about fractions and portions.
We also run in-home birthday parties and private classes which are incredibly popular and loads of fun!
Monica: Can tell me what goes on to prepare for pop up Friday?
Chef Shai: The pop up restaurant is insanely complicated to execute well, hence why it is always such a feat for the staff and campers when they pull it off! On the day of the pop up, we are writing the menus and ordering all the ingredients and then, after lunch, campers split into front of the house (FOH) and back of the house (BOH) staff. Our sous chef will train the FOH staff (servers and hosts) on their roles. The hosts will prepare the seating chart, remember where everyone is seated, practice welcoming guests, etc. The servers will set up the tables, decorate the space and then learn how to take orders, place orders and deliver food to their guests. They will then practice on each other. We really emphasize professionalism and expect our campers to behave as if they were a real server and/or host in a restaurant. The BOH staff is comprised of the bartenders and chefs. The bartenders make all their simple syrups, juice their citrus, set up the bar, practice making their drinks, etc. while the chefs prep all the remaining food for the evening, set up the kitchen as per stations, practice executing and plating the meal and clean. Right before doors open, we have a “pump up” with the chefs and get the kids ready to rock! Energy is high, kids are nervous and excited, and everyone is ready to go.
Monica: What are your long term goals for Rooks to Cooks?
Chef Shai: The next phase of the business will be building out the in-school business. I strive to have 100 schools locked in with an after school program for the 2020 season. While building the in-school business and opening 2 more camp locations, we will also be opening a permanent location. This location will be a huge step for us and a platform to expand our services to include classes for adults, university age students, and seniors, you name it! Once the first model is tried and tested, we intend to replace most, if not all, of our current camp locations with permanent locations and potentially expand out of the GTA. Once the first model is tried and tested, we intend to replace most if not all our current camp locations with permanent locations and potentially expand out of the GTA.
For more information on the Rooks to Cooks summer camps, after-school programs and private classes, check out https://www.rookstocooks.ca/
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