SOME chefs seem destined for the kitchen from childhood, dropping their playthings and tracing the scent of fresh baking to the family oven like Hansel and Gretel backtracking over breadcrumbs.
Debby Tonn is not one of those chefs.
Asked when she began cooking, her response is mingled with laughter.
"That's a good question," she says. "Probably when I was about 35."
Having subsisted on her mother's cooking as a child and restaurant fare as an adult, the owner and founder of the Hungry Oven was relatively unacquainted with her own stove until the responsibilities of family and adulthood were thrust upon her.
"It was economics and children that pushed me into cooking," she says.
When her children began attending school, Tonn enrolled in the Pacific Institute of Culinary arts.
"I had some time on my hands and I thought going back to school would be a great idea and I didn't want to do something that wouldn't benefit the family."
The one-year program carried a high burnout rate, and by the time Tonn was cooking entrees and waiting tables to earn her diploma, the class had dwindled from 12 students to seven.
After graduating, Tonn took a trip to New York and read about an itinerant cooking school for children.
"They would come to you, and I thought, OK, well that certainly is a lot of work," she says, laughing.
From that idea, Tonn developed the Hungry Oven, a North Vancouver cooking school that specializes in teaching children how to prepare dishes from around the globe.
While the school offers classes for parents and children, many of their courses make a point of excluding the parents.
"Children's personalities are much different when mom is in the room. Once you remove mom they tend to go with the flow and get involved with the other kids around them," Tonn says.
Children enrolled in the monthly cooking class are presented with a recipe book and an apron on their first day.
The first class usually places a strong emphasis on safety, according to Tonn.
"We teach the younger children the bear claw and it's the way that they hold their fingers so that they won't be cutting the tips of their fingers," she says.
The youngest cooking students, who range from three to five years old, do not use any sharp knives. For older children, classes use child-friendly knives and are taught proper cutting techniques.
Teachers also stress washing hands before cooking and after handling meat, eggs, or poultry.
The cuisine tends to be international, according to Tonn, who says the children cook Italian, Chinese, Thai, Indian, and Spanish food.
"We've got kids making chicken cordon bleu and french onion soup and paella and hamburgers," she says.
Children have also learned how to make ice cream and crème caramel in the classes.
Because the two hours allotted for the class aren't usually sufficient for popping a dish in the oven, the Hungry Oven offers a three-hour Saturday morning class that focuses on baking.
The school has also offered workshops on sushi as well as the turkey, duck, and chicken concoction known as turducken.
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