What the children in Stefanie Goebel's cooking class lack in experience they more than make up for in spirit, and their teacher has found just the recipe to inspire young sous chefs. "How many times do we read a recipe?" Stefanie Goebel looks around the table. "Twice!" comes the chorus. "Right," says Goebel. "We always read the recipe first. Second, we get our ingredients. Third, we wash our hands and tie our hair back.
Goebel, an art teacher in the middle school at the American Community School in Abu Dhabi, is teaching a different kind of mixed media this late May afternoon: savoy cabbage, ginger, green onions and carrots. "I want everything cut like toothpicks," she says. "Today is a cutting job, so focus on your cutting technique." As the students scatter to gather their ingredients, Goebel explains that her after-school classes got their start last autumn when most of the eighth grade went to Thailand for the school's Week Without Walls. Those staying behind "only had classes, classes, classes", she remembers.
"I asked: 'Would you guys like to learn some Thai cooking?' I ended up with 12 eighth-graders who'd never held a knife before. We cooked a five-course meal." That first class was such a hit, Goebel led three eight-week cooking sessions this year. Today is the next-to-the-last class before summer and the menu is ambitious: Thai spring rolls made with two different wrappers, one fried, one raw; vegetarian sushi roll; Chinese vegetable soup; and for dessert, lychees and bananas in coconut milk. Spread in teams over four tables in the teachers' lounge, the nine chefs set to work.
Lamia finely chops onion for the spring rolls, while her classmate Adam, headphones around his neck, expertly does the same for the sushi. Liam, a tall eighth-grader, undaunted by one arm in a cast, slices with his good hand. No fear, no blood, just lovely, perfect slivers. At the next table, Goebel shows Ashley and Kenda, grade six classmates, how to zest a carrot. "I want the pieces to nicely float in the broth," she says, making a swimming motion. "Like julienne?" asks Ashley.
"Yes" says Goebel and taps her affectionately on the head. She moves from table to table, asking questions ("What does the recipe say? White sugar or brown sugar?), offering suggestions ("I like to peel avocados before cutting them") and outright directives ("Not too many people by the hot oil, please!"). How do we teach a skill that is practical, pleasurable and so necessary? I've hovered nervously with both daughters (one now grown, who has, no thanks to me, become a terrific cook) as they sliced, poured and measured, equally nervously.
"Miss Goebel" as her sous-chefs call her, is helpful, knowledgeable, patient, clear, encouraging and, above all, relaxed. She's created the perfect climate for learning how to cook, the just-right ratio of control to freedom, rigour to fun. "Cooking is a skill for life," she says. "It's something you will remember forever. All my students always take their recipe collection and when they come and tell me that they made a certain dish for their parents, I get real satisfaction from that.
As she does when they all sit down at 5pm to their veggie banquet. There will be clean-up and dishes later - it's all part of cooking - but for now it's time to savour. "It's awfully quiet in here," says Goebel, reaching for another spring roll. "What's the verdict?" "We're eating!" comes the answer.
With school coming to a close and long summer days to fill, why not spend some time with your teen in the kitchen? Here are three books recommended by Stefanie Goebel to get your family started: Teens Cook by Megan and Jill Carle (Ten Speed Press). Clueless In The Kitchen by Evelyn Raab (Firefly Books). The Science Chef by Joan D'Amico and Karen Drummond (Jossey Bass).