By Anna Mindess | Photos by Shannon Kelli
What can you accomplish in one tiny kitchen with nine 13-year-old boys overflowing with energy in just 50 minutes?
“Plenty,” says Andi Kotrozo, who teaches a weekly elective cooking class at Berkeley’s East Bay School for Boys (EBSB). “It’s a power-packed hour. It has to be something we can discuss, create, cook, clean, and then eat, all in 50 minutes.”
Kotrozo never went to culinary school, but cooking has always been part of her life. While growing up in Berkeley, she and her mom grew herbs for Chez Panisse and were close with Alice Waters. As a drama student at Juilliard in New York City, she lived in a residence hotel with no kitchen. “My roommate and I bought an electric wok, a rice cooker, and a mini fridge,” recalls Kotrozo. “And I would invite my entire class over and cook dinner for everybody. Cooking is something I’ve done forever.”
She is the mother of two teenage boys, who both attended the East Bay School for Boys. “When I saw that cooking was part of the curriculum,” she says, “it really turned me on to the school. And when they were looking for someone to take over the cooking class in 2019, I said ‘I can do that.’”
Many meanings of “Work”
The current head of school, Dana Rosenberg, created the cooking program back in 2014. It’s part of a curricular pillar this middle school calls Work. Their shop program teaches traditional tech arts like woodworking and blacksmithing, and because the school directors believe a 21st century boys’ school should foster well-rounded students, the curriculum adds flower arranging, embroidery, table arranging, and cooking.
“We want to be more inclusive about what “work” is, including traditional crafts: not just men’s crafts but also what are commonly thought of as women’s crafts. We discuss how gender does not have to be a signifier for the crafts.”
The school’s mission directs staff to address the question, “What do we want a self-actualized adult man to be like?” Their answer, “engaged, thoughtful, and courageous,” runs through every aspect of the curriculum at this school of about 80–90 students.
Rosenberg describes cooking as a major life skill, which includes learning how to follow directions. “The kitchen is really an extension of the shop, where they need to be aware of safety, use communication skills, set a plan, and organize. We try to keep it simple, but we want to give them something they can do in their home kitchens, too.”
The kids were such fans of the sixth-grade cooking unit that Rosenberg started Mama’s Kitchen, a weekly cooking club, and finally instituted a cooking elective for seventh and eighth graders.
“Our students really love cooking,” she says, “but they kind of suck at it because it requires an incredible amount of executive functioning to follow through on a recipe. They struggle with doing it well, but they love it and especially love eating—that’s a real motivator.”
One popular lesson has been a “Chopped” challenge (like in the television program) where teams of students are told to make something with limited tools and materials.
“They would make the weirdest things,” Rosenberg says. “We would take pictures and judge them.”
And since reflecting is part of every lesson, the students review their creations, taste the flavors, and ask questions like: “What went wrong? Why did that whipped cream look like that? Why do we not put those flavors together? What would have been better?”
A seventh-grade lesson brings shop and cooking together as students interview a family member and elicit a meaningful recipe; then, using their blacksmithing skills, they make a utensil that complements the recipe. Rosenberg recalls boys making soup ladles, knives, spatulas, and a pair of kitchen scissors that were specifically crafted to cut herbs.
During the pandemic, when the school went online, fans of the cooking class had to make do with videos or just trying recipes at home on their own. Students are thrilled to be back in the kitchen now.
Learning to cook in a tiny kitchen
EBSB rents their space from the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, where the tiny kitchen has just a single electric stove. But every Monday afternoon, Andi Kotrozo makes the space work.
“The kids come in, wash their hands, put on their aprons, gather around the island,” she says. “I explain what we’re doing and what things need to happen in order for us to complete the task.” She puts pairs of students in charge of different tasks like chopping or frying. “But everyone is involved in cleaning up.”
Learning objectives include following a recipe and mastering kitchen techniques such as how to crack an egg without getting pieces of shell in the batter. To train taste buds, the boys learn to ask questions like “Does this berry sauce need more sugar or more lemon juice?”
Sessions may focus on specific skills like knife techniques, how to work with hot oil, how to manage your time.
“Sometimes I have kids who love cooking and are incredibly focused; they ask a million questions,” she says, “and then I have others who run around like crazy people and just want to eat.”
Sometimes the hour’s results are disappointing, but that’s a valuable lesson too. Kotrozo recalls a time when a lemon curd didn’t set. “It was awful, but I said, ‘This is sometimes what happens. We do all this work, and it doesn’t come out right.’”
Kotrozo sees in each meeting how middle school can be an especially challenging stage. “Especially for boys,” she says, noting how they all develop at different rates. “It’s difficult because they’re always trying to be cool. The absence of girls in the classroom probably lets some of them be more creative. There’s lots of attitude and testing limits, social pressures, and puberty all at the same time. It’s tough for them to open up.”
But there’s magic in the kitchen, possibly because it’s a familiar space. “The kids can let loose a little, even for just a second,” says Kotrozo. “I’ve seen mopers laugh, shy guys beam with pride, and tough guys be silly. All around food.”
Kotrozo says the boys especially love making donuts, Dutch babies, and fried chicken sandwiches. But the big favorite in the cooking class is the two-part lesson on homemade pasta. One Monday they make the dough and freeze it; the next week they cut it, make [famed Italian cooking writer] Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce, and then eat it. “It’s a big hit,” says Kotrozo. “They cannot believe how easy it is, or how much muscle [it] takes.”
Eyes on the prize
“The goal,” says Kotrozo, “is to have them excited about cooking, about food, about being with each other in community, to sit at a table and eat something that their hands have made. It’s a really useful skill, especially when you leave home. It’s great to be able to share that gift with friends and family, and it’s a great job skill to get yourself through life, from dishwashing to serving to cheffing.”
Jordan Walton, EBSB class of 2016, remembers making pasta carbonara for the final cooking challenge.
“It was really tough following the recipe with a time constraint,” he recalls, “but when I tasted it, I was like … oh man, I am going to make sure we cook this at home all the time.”
Because of the pandemic, Walton is only now leaving home to start college. He’s on a meal plan, but the cooking lessons have stuck.
“I cooked for myself and our family while I was at home, and because of Mama’s Kitchen, I became comfortable taking risks in the kitchen and making meals all the time, like homemade pasta from scratch with pesto or crêpes like we made in Mama’s Kitchen.”
Owen Pines, EBSB class of 2018, was so inspired by the cooking class that he took a sushi rolling course in Japan and is now headed to culinary school.
“Mama’s Kitchen was my introduction into the cooking world. While I was at EBSB, in addition to the cooking elective I was invited by the head of school to help cook an eight-to-nine course meal for a fundraiser, and my whole world was blown open as I fell in love with the process. From there I began catering events for friends while in high school. My favorite skill I learned from Mama’s Kitchen was making pasta from scratch. I have my own roller now, and I roll out sheets and make homemade pasta all the time.”
Kotrozo encourages her own two sons to learn to cook at least three of their favorite dishes before they leave home.
“I tell that to the kids in my class, too. Find a couple of dishes you really love: It will open so many doors for you— socially and creatively, perhaps a job—and you will be able to feed yourself.” ♦
Anna Mindess writes on food, culture, and travel for numerous publications. She also works as an American Sign Language interpreter. Follow her on Instagram @annamindess and find her stories at annamindess.contently.com.
Shannon Kelli’s editorial and commercial photography studio in Berkeley specializes in still and moving pictures that tell a unique visual story about the person, product, brand, or business they represent. shannonkelli.com