A lanky, long-haired boy stands in front of a stack of shelves lined with more than a dozen varieties of canned beans. He’s 10 and his name is Wiley. He has a shopping list in his hand and a mask on his face. This is the first time he has been to a grocery store in over five months. His cart is loaded with onions, limes, yogurt, peppers, feta cheese. Now he needs chickpeas, and although he’s staring at a can with a picture of chickpeas on the label, his brow is furrowed.
“It just says chickpeas,” he says. “What are chickpeas?”
He puts the can in his car, gives the car a push and goes in search of chilli powder.
Wiley is my son, and a measure of how much the world has changed in the last six months is that the list of things he needs for summer camp doesn’t include a sleeping bag, flashlight, or even bug spray.
He needs a can of chickpeas.
That’s because Wiley — who lives in western Massachusetts — will soon be joining 30 other kids from Vancouver, Canada, and San Jose, California. and Washington DC in a radical project: they will cook dinner for their families for a whole week.
The location of the 2020 summer camp is each of these children’s own kitchen.
Welcome to the dinner club. This week’s menu includes Indian butter chicken, Greek salad with falafel, and fish tacos—each dish made entirely from scratch.
The Dinner Club is conceived and taught by Pascal Simon, known to his students as Chef Pascal. The German-born chef has been teaching children’s baking classes in her home kitchen in Austin, Texas for a decade. She’s had a popular following among foodie families and homeschoolers around town for years. Simon says that up until a few months ago, her classes mostly focused on “sweet stuff” like cookies, pop tarts and French macaroons. A popular offer every summer was called “Cupcake Camp”.
Then came the pandemic.
Simon had always taught in person, a dozen kids in her kitchen. Her classes revolved around hands-on proximity, tactile problem solving, and community building. She says she threw herself a pity party over the weekend when the world shut down. She had never been to Zoom.
On the Monday after the shutdown, Simon began offering online baking classes, initially for free, to any child who signed up. She expected classes to be sparsely attended by alumni, but within weeks, up to 45 kids from across North America were enrolling. The cooking sessions were energetic and chaotic, and Simon picked up numerous new teaching skills in no time.
But new skills weren’t enough. Although parents appreciated the lessons and often expressed surprise at what their stuck-at-home children were doing, those same parents also had a problem.
“Who Needs More Cupcakes?” says Simon, his voice growing louder with desperation. “Who needs cupcakes for a week?”
She turned and began to focus on dinner. That meant knives, hot pans, safe food handling. It also meant that Chef Pascal’s students were doing something very relevant – even necessary – for their families. She even let the kids wash their own dishes between other chores.
“For parents, there is nothing better,” says Simon, “than when you come home or come out of the office and dinner is ready and the dishes are done.”
She pauses for a moment.
“I think the dishes are almost better than the dinner.”
At the end of July we set the laptop at the other end of the kitchen counter and Wiley signs up for his first day at the dinner club. Chef Pascal greets the students individually. Within fifteen minutes, every kid on the Zoom screen has raw chicken on a cutting board and a knife in hand.
“If your chicken is already cut up, I’m sorry,” says Chef Pascal. “I told your parents not to do that.”
An hour later, our kitchen smells incredible. This evening’s butter chicken is perfectly tender after being simmered in cream, tomatoes, cumin, garam masala, and other spices. My wife and I look at each other across the table.
“Wiley,” she says. “That’s very good.”
The following night, the legume, also known as the chickpea, has a star appearance. The falafel are crispy on the outside and silky on the inside. I’m competing with Wiley’s older brother for these falafel balls. He’s 14 and has become more or less nocturnal since the shutdown, doing little more than DMing friends while he watches breaking Bad in an endless loop.
Dude really cracks the falafel.
On the third day of Dinner Club, eight-year-old Juliet Wilson begins with a question.
“Chef Pascal, shall we just do the chicken fajitas, the tortillas and the guacamole and pico?”
There’s a pause, and then comes Simon’s flat reply.
“Only. Yes Juliet We only make the tortillas, the guacamole, the pico de gallo and the fajitas.”
Wiley collapses. Only. The exchange pretty much sums up everything that’s good about this week. Not just Chef Pascal’s dry sense of humor and genuine appreciation for her students, but also the sheer ambition of their shared endeavor. Because – make no mistake – this class is tough. Every night when Wiley is done, his feet hurt so much that he dips them in ice, moans and complains. Then he starts talking about what he will cook the next day. (For the record, although Wiley is trying to keep up, my wife and I will be doing a significant amount of dishes this week.)
As it turns out, Wiley isn’t the only chef with foot problems!
“I didn’t know my feet could hurt like that,” says Hazel Griffin, 10 years old. She and her 12-year-old brother Eamon — both of whom are from Austin, like the chef — attended this three-week dinner club during the summer. Before June they had hardly cooked. Hazel says there was stress and bickering between them. Cooking, she says, can be really tough.
“But if you have a partner and you get along” – Hazel glances at her brother – “then it can be a lot easier.”
Eamon nods. “If your parents really like the food,” he says, “the look on their face is enough to make you come back. Even when it’s hard, even when it’s stressful.”
There’s one essential thing Chef Pascal understands about distance learning during a pandemic. It is that children who are bored or frightened or distracted – children who have had every ritual and routine removed from their lives – these children do not need undue comfort or compassion.
These kids need a challenge.
Back in our kitchen, Wiley holds a lumpy, heavily wrinkled ball of tortilla dough up to the screen. He hits the spacebar and unmutes.
“Is it good?” he asks.
“Wiley, when you push in,” chef Pascal replies in her Zoom-influenced German accent, holding up her smooth ball of dough, “imagine this is like a little baby bird and you just push it in really gently. don’t nudge it, just gently Does it bounce back?
Wiley performs the maneuver. He says, “Somehow.”
“OK. Something isn’t quite finished yet, so knead it a little longer.”
Then another face appears on the screen. It’s Hazel Griffin.
“Chef Pascal,” she says, “can you please slow down? My cat got out and I have to catch her.”
Wiley presses his palms into the dough and collapses again.