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BY JANEL BLADOW | One of those “what am I going to do with my life” moments that sparks an “ah-ha” vision propelled Cricket Azima along her unique career path. Her combined love of kids and good, healthy food led the chef to start her own home-based business, “The Creative Kitchen,” in Tribeca.
“I was at a crossroads in my career and trying to find out what I wanted to spend energy on,” she told the Downtown Express. “I could teach kindergarten. Or become a chef. The idea is a meeting of the two.”
The Creative Kitchen is an education-based series of hands-on cooking classes for kids. Her classes, workshops, seminars, events and birthday parties, for teenagers and children as young as two years old, are all about food. Most of them involve traditional learning — reading, writing and arithmetic — but also end with a scrumptious meal. The classes make up a summer series held at various locations around the city, including City Treehouse, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan and Whole Foods Market in the East Village.
This summer (and coming this fall), the series “Cook With Me,” targeting toddlers and their caregivers, took place at J&R Jr. on Ann Street. Kids joined Azima in creating new recipes that focused on themes, colors, numbers and shapes familiar to little ones. In addition to eating their projects, the kids got to craft art made out of food.
While the younger kids learn shapes and colors, older ones learn about nutrition and the science of food. For example, in the Playtime Pasta Party sessions, Azima talks about how water boils to cook the pasta. Motor skills also get a workout — stirring pasta, adding a pinch of salt, tearing herbs. The kids also learn how to follow directions and improve their reading skills by following recipes.
“They learn measurements and fractions,” explained Azima. “If a recipe calls for a cup of beans, I’ll present them with a half-cup measuring cup. We’ll talk about how two half-cups equal one whole cup.”
But that isn’t all they learn. Azima occasionally delves into social sciences, music, history and geography. The youths also have a social experience by working as teams.
“They are rewarded naturally with a fun meal they make themselves at the end.”
The Creative Kitchen is also a co-sponsor of the Kids Food Festival, held last year in Bryant Park The free event — the largest of its kind in New York City — is meant to help fight childhood obesity and underscore the importance of balanced food choices through fun activities and tasty samples. According to Azima, it was such a hit that it is going to be an annual affair: The second yearly festival takes place on Nov. 3 and 4.
One event highlight is the scavenger hunt, in which kids collect stamps representing various foods. When they’ve filled their “plates” with balanced meals, they get to turn them in for goodie bags.
“Parents are happy because their children are learning what makes a balanced meal, and the kids have fun learning,” said Azima.
The Creative Kitchen grew out of her New York University master’s thesis, “Children’s Cooking Classes: An Alternative Method to Enhance Learning.” While writing it, Azima came to the realization that children better retain cooking lessons when they use all of the senses and have fun.
The licensed chef also graduated from Peter Kump’s New York Culinary School (known as The Institute of Culinary Education). She has worked with a variety of magazines and TV shows and has even produced food events for major organizations such as the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.
“I learned so much more about the activity of cooking — taking what we call traditional disciplines and making them more exciting,” she said of her own educational experience. “I was never great at math or science myself. But I got into it with cooking. This is a natural way to connect with a young audience.”
Her biggest challenge, she said, is trying to get the entire family on board. “I have to remind some parents that they are the role models here,” said Azima. “If they come to me and say their kid is a picky eater and then go, ‘Ew that’s a tomato,’ I have to stop and say, ‘Yum,’ and find a way make it exciting.”
With the classes, she added, picky eaters get to see what goes into their food. “Often if they help cut up a carrot or tear up herbs, have fun and are connected to the dish, then they are more ready to eat it,” she said.
The program also builds self-esteem and independence, explained Azima, since kids get to choose what goes into their bodies.
But most importantly, even the littlest ones are getting hands-on experience.
“They are proud of what they made,” she said. “For them, it’s like an art project, and they like to show it off. It gives them a sense of accomplishment and pride in what they’ve created.”
For more information, visit www.thecreativekitchen.com.