LINO LAKES, Minn.—JJ McKenzie pops a pink, Eiffel-Tower-shaped candy melt into his mouth.
The 12-year-old thinks it over as he chews.
"This right here," he says, "is the most important part of baking."
Although the Little Canada boy was a student at "Baking Bonanza," a summer cooking camp held at The Kids Cooking School in Lino Lakes, he already understood the joy of cooking.
Tiffany Cavegn, the founder, executive director and head chef of this nonprofit school, also smiles as she pops the pink candies out of a silicone mold. Wearing a purple T-shirt that says, "I'm a whisk taker," she seems to share her student's joy.
"We call it the happiest kitchen on earth," Cavegn says.
'Nobody taught me to cook'
As a child, Cavegn didn't know this joy.
"I lived on pizza and Hamburger Helper," she says. "Nobody taught me to cook."
Cavegn, 48, grew up in the era of convenience foods and the microwave oven, but she has few memories of her whole family gathering around the TV dinners.
"My parents divorced when I was a child," she says.
Caveng aimed to have a healthier life as she grew up, but things didn't immediately change after she returned from Paris honeymoon.
Change arrived later in the form of a son, now 9, and a daughter, now almost 7.
"When I had children, I wanted something different," Cavegn says. "I wanted them to enjoy cooking."
First, she had to enjoy it herself.
"I only knew how to prepare very plain things," she says.
Cooking classes could only take her so far.
"I had to learn how to teach my children to have a healthy relationship with food, which is actually not a relationship at all," she says. "Food is a thing — it's just food; it's fuel."
Food fueled her change.
"I did not have a real midlife crisis, but a midlife work burnout," says Cavegn. "I worked in the field of online marketing and blogging, but I was so burned out. And so I took some online courses and I became a certified health coach — because I had this dream, which had been brewing since I had my kids, of helping other parents with how to raise your children to be healthy eaters when you aren't a healthy eater as a parent."
It didn't go as expected, though, when Cavegn began teaching classes in 2016 through Centennial School District 12's community education program.
"I didn't get a lot of feedback that this is what parents wanted," she says. "So the director suggested a class for the kids instead. I had never done that, but I was a certified health coach for kids, too."
This time, the feedback was immediate.
"The class sold out," Cavegn says. "We offered another class. It sold out, too. The director suggested a third class. I said, 'Why not?' It sold out again. I was kind of dumbfounded. Who knew that this was a thing? There were tons of parents who don't know how to cook, or don't have the time, or don't want the mess or don't have the patience to teach children. There were all these parents who were thrilled to have the option of a cooking class for their kids."
'Trendy, popular thing right now'
Cavegn's next opportunity was almost delivered to her doorstep.
"We live across the street from a strip mall," she says. "I would sit on my porch and look at a 'For Rent' sign. I kept talking about it: 'Wouldn't this be a really crazy idea, to have a cooking school just for kids?'"
Not so crazy, maybe.
"At the same time I was teaching cooking classes, there are all these FACS (Family and Consumer Science) teachers retiring (from a field formerly known as home ec)," Cavegn says. "A lot of schools are totally eliminating the FACS classes. This is happening while kids are also seeing other kids on cooking competition shows on TV. So kids are seeing themselves on TV and they want to learn these skills. It's kind of this trendy, popular thing right now."
Her business mentor turned up the heat as Cavegn waffled on taking the next step.
"I took a weekend to finally decide," she says. "I looked at the space. I ran spreadsheets. I sat down with my husband. I said, 'I think we can do this.' So we did."
The Kids Cooking School, which opened in 2017, is a confection of a place. There are jars of rainbow sprinkles and gummy worms and caramels; there are whimsical cake plates, created from gluing colorful plates or trays to offbeat bases like tall drinking glasses or pretty candle holders; there are posters of ice cream flavors; there are burgundy-hued KitchenAid mixers; there are cookbooks with titles like "Cooking Wizardry for Kids" and "Homemade Patisserie." It's a big space, with eight kid stations and two demonstration stations, but classes are limited to two kids per station so that the learning can be hands-on.
This is not the only kids' cooking school in the metro, or the only venue for kids' cooking classes, but Cavegn believes her nonprofit status is unique.
"I wanted to open as a nonprofit because we want to be able to apply for grants for kids who can't afford to pay the tuition fees," she says.
Learning to cook this way can certainly be pricey: Although individual classes start at $25, the all-day summer camps — which run Mondays through Thursdays — range from $189 for a half day to $399 for full days.
"It's all fresh food, so that costs more," says Cavegn.
The school also offers more deeply discounted online classes, which will pick up again this fall and are designed for the older student (at press time, the price was still to be determined).
'This is something she'll be able to do her whole life'
Katie Hogan of Centerville smiled as she watched her 8-year-old daughter, Monroe, finish up making a "chalkboard" cake on a recent summer afternoon at the cooking school. Monroe and her 6-year-old cousin, Amelia Zenk of Inver Grove Heights, had spent the week creating savory options like tomato galettes as well as turning marshmallows into from-scratch fondant — a skill many adults don't have in their repertoire.
"We wanted her to do something this summer, but she doesn't like softball or soccer," Hogan says. "This is something she'll be able to do her whole life."
Monroe, who took a break from baking at one point to play patty-cake with her cousin, was still smiling at the end of the six-hour bake-a-thon
"It's really fun!" said Monroe. "I love cooking."