You could say that cooking is a career for Heidi O’Connor, but that might be selling it short.O’Connor, of Vancouver, lives and breathes the culinary arts at The Kids Cooking Corner, a school that teaches children, “the art and joy of cooking.”
The 45-year-old mother of three opened the school three years ago, when she realized her son didn’t know how to make a box meal because he didn’t understand how to measure ingredients.
“The schools don’t have the budgets for home ec anymore, and with parents having full-time careers, it is challenging to find time to teach kids in the kitchen,” she said.
O’Connor speaks from personal experience. She balanced a full-time career in the restaurant industry and then in sales while raising her family. She was searching for a new business to start when the idea for a cooking school came about.
“A light bulb went on,” she said. “Why not teach other people’s children how to cook? You get to a point in life where you start wondering, ‘What am I really here for?’ This was the answer.”
She put the idea out on Facebook, and received enthusiastic responses from other parents.
“I spent all night researching this business model and there was nothing else that existed like it,” she said. “So I decided to start something. It has been quite the learning experience.”
At first, O’Connor tried to figure out how to make her passion profitable, but soon realized it wasn’t going to work out the way she had planned.
“Some parents couldn’t afford the classes, so I started offering scholarships,” she said. “We are an all-volunteer organization. No one takes a salary. It’s been hard, but I am not going to take a paycheck when the school is struggling. Any money we get, we put back into it.”
O’Connor attends different community events to get the word out about The Kids Cooking Corner. This summer, she put on a cooking demonstration the Camas Farmer’s Market, after being invited by the coordinator, Marilyn Goodman.
“I had a blast,” O’Connor said. “Of course, a big rain storm with high winds came and drenched everyone. It was opening day in June. We made a gluten free stir-fry with veggies bought from the market. It was kind of slow but I was able to give away all my samples. People loved finding out about us.”
To help offset costs, O’Connor has developed partnerships with local grocery stores, as well as cultivated and maintained a garden at the 19th century Padden House, which serves as The Kids Cooking Corner headquarters. She is also hoping to get a few hens so that the kids can collect their own eggs.
“I didn’t have any connections with local grocers before this,” O’Connor said. “But I worked in sales for 10 years so cold-calling wasn’t a big barrier for me. I just walked in and asked.”
On most given weeknights, there are students ages 3 to 18 learning how to dice, slice, sauté, mix and measure, when age appropriate. They also learn about proper nutrition, kitchen safety, proper food preparation, etiquette and cleanliness.
“The goal is that these skills will lead to healthier lifestyle and meal choices, as well as long-term healthy benefits,” O’Connor said.
Her favorite part about the business is watching children with special needs succeed.
“Seeing the kids who struggle with everyday life because they have special needs and seeing the parents’ reactions, hearing reports back on the difference it has made in their lives, that is why I am here,” O’Connor said. “One mom was helping me clean the kitchen and said her daughter can’t do other activities because she has such a short attention span. She is excelling here.”
Meals vary by the week and depend a lot on what is in season in the garden, and what is on sale at the grocery store. But the young cooks typically make an entree, side dish and dessert.
On a sunny fall day last week, the students, ages 7 to 11, made cheesy butternut squash casserole, festive salad and apple pie. The excited voices could be heard in the kitchen and downstairs, where different groups prepared their creations.
Natalie Stephens, 10, of Vancouver, was attending her second class.
“At home my mom doesn’t let me use a knife in the kitchen,” she said. “She does it all.”
Eleven-year-old Hanna Tolson of Portland enjoyed the social aspects.
“It’s fun working with other kids, cooking and having fun,” she said.
Justin Barnes, 8, of Vancouver, was surprised to learn he liked certain foods he considered a no-go before.
“The avocados were really good,” he said. “I can cook and it’s fun doing it.”
Aidan and Sadie Dotson, 7-year-old twins from Vancouver, enjoyed putting their skills to work in the kitchen.
“We love the cooking, and the eating,” Sadie said.
O’Connor said that kids are far more likely to eat what they’ve helped prepare. This statement was illustrated by a 6-year-old, who had previously refused to eat salad. After making a salad at The Kids Cooking Corner, however, he finish it with enthusiasm.
“This helps develop their palate,” she said. “We’re giving them the chance to be involved. How would you feel if every night, you were served something that you had no choice in or no part of preparing? You might not want to eat it, either.”
In addition to classes and occasional camps, birthday parties are also offered. Children start by making their own cupcakes, then (weather permitting) they go to the garden and gather herbs and produce for entrees. They also get to hold Simon the bunny and guinea pigs Molly and Oreo. All proceeds go toward scholarships for low income children.
O’Connor is hoping to receive enough community support to be able to have a paid staff member to keep the cooking school operating well into the future, and expand scholarship opportunities.
“This is not just a hobby or a fun business for me,” she said. “This is my passion.”