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Chefs in the making

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At Torte Knox, where Sheelah Kaye Stepkin conducts summer classes for teenagers, she identifies this classroom experience as a memory-making moment.

One day she found herself facing a group of bored, restless teenage students.

So Ms. Stepkin began telling them a dramatic story about the dumplings they were going to prepare. It was an emotional tale about a 4-day-old Korean girl who was gambled away in a poker game, then at 14 was sold to a silk factory, and at 18 to a Korean man living in America. What freed this young woman from her bondage was her skill at preparing mandoo (a Korean dumpling of minced meat and vegetables wrapped in thin dough).

The students were riveted by her story, and when she finished, they had many questions about the woman and her dumplings. They begged to learn more.

"It is together – the food and the moment – that makes eating special," Stepkin says. "For me, my special dining experience was when I had my first mandoo. The dumplings and this young woman's story became for me a very special memory-making moment."

When she mentioned this to the students, they shared examples of their own memory-making moments. This new understanding brought a complete turnabout in their attitude. They wanted to learn to dice, sauté, and deep-fry correctly. And they carefully listened to what Stepkin said, because she had charmed them with her knowledge and story.

Teaching the students recipes and cooking tips was easy after that, because she had engaged them on their level.

Joe Randall, of Chef Joe Randall's Cooking School, believes that fully engaging students is necessary for classroom success.

His summer 2008 culinary day camp for African-American teenagers, which began as an experiment, attracted nearly 100 young men.

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