Thursday’s “edible citizen” is Marie-Pierre Nicoletti, the founder and owner of ‘The Language of Food”, a program that teaches children “how to cook and speak French too.” In addition to teaching children how to prepare meals based around whole and organic food, Marie cooks from scratch for her own family, and volunteers with the Garden to Table and the Growing Gardens’ CSA in Boulder. In the summer, she runs a French Immersion Summer Camp, and will begin to run an after-school French program this fall.
Describe your history with teaching cooking classes to children:
I started teaching cooking classes for children in December 2000. That was when I created “The Language of Food.” This idea came after reflecting on how to make it interesting for children to learn French and for myself to teach French to children. I had been asking to myself this question while tutoring children in French. I already believed that learning came from doing, to have both the brain and the hands engaged and fully aware. This idea of teaching the children “how to cook and speak French too!” popped into my head.
It seemed obvious to me. I had, myself, studied cooking from when I was 8 until I was 18, in an extracurricular program that taught classic French cooking to children. It was very formative for me, and it influenced not just my cooking ability, but how I perceived the world. After this epiphany about how cooking could be important well beyond the mechanics of the art, for the next 4 years I pursued the idea as a side job/passion. I organized cooking workshops at my home and taught French cooking classes for children at the Culinary School of the Rockies (CSR) in 2001 and 2002.
In 2004 I moved back home, to Paris, and I spent 3 years researching food trends, participating in all the exhibitions and conventions the food industry had to offer. I explored Paris thoroughly, becoming expert at regional foods and specialties. I gobbled literature on food and explored all the locations that were showcasing the delicacies that make Paris the capital of food. While in Paris I worked on a food project at a local incubator, a project that is still in the process of maturation today, waiting for investors.
In 2007, I returned to Boulder determined that this passion for food and my love of teaching should remain combined and would become my full-time occupation. I created 3 age groups, 3 to 5years old, 6 to 12 years old, and Teens. I have been teaching my cooking classes in different locations in Boulder and Denver, where I rent out spaces for my classes. I have also been teaching a lot of individual classes in private homes. I have also been teaching cooking classes to adults. The adult classes I formed after many parents mentioned that they wished they could learn what their children were learning about French cooking, as well as being interested in brushing up the French they had studied years before.
Noticing the interest in children in learning “how to cook and speak French too!” I decide to explore the idea and extend the project into a “French Immersion Summer Camp” in which children would not only cook and learn French but sew, act, play, knit, sculpt, paint, etc. all in French. I believe in learning a foreign language while being busy doing something else, especially something creative to engage both brains in the process and balance the attention with creation. In middle school, I had an English teacher that encouraged us to scribble and sketch while he was teaching us English. He believed that our attention to the lesson would benefit from being “illustrated” by our own creativity. It is easy to see this process in young children. If you have observed young children, they look like they are completely absorbed by their game while you and your friend are having a grown up conversation, and later on you realize that they not only remembered the content of the conversation but the emotional variations of it as well.
From this philosophy “The French Immersion Summer Camp” was born and came as an addition to the original project of “The Language of Food”.
Describe one of your lesson plans for teaching children how to cook and the importance of local and organic food.
The most important thing is to choose the freshest, most succulent produce, fruits, and ingredients you can find, sourced as close to home as possible. Then present all the produce and ingredients in a way that highlights how good and bursting with freshness they really are. I arrange the vegetables and fruits in a big wicker basket, and I put the eggs on a ceramic egg tray, the sticks of high-quality butter in a big, French old-fashioned ceramic bowl. I display the cooking utensils in an old galvanized pot. I create a first impression of the dish we will create, which is all about beauty. Cooking and beauty go hand in hand. Children are very sensitive to beauty and style, and they will willingly engage in any project that emanates beauty. They notice the beautiful utensils, they love dishes and utensils that are proportionate to their own childlike size, they notice the beautiful aprons, and they love to wear them. This is very important, even before you even start the class. Last but not least I display the most beautiful picture I have found of the dish, and they are very excited by knowing the result of what they are about to create.
Then, I introduce the cultural aspects of the dishes we are studying, their geographic origins, the time of year or celebration during which the dish is most often eaten, the epicurean beliefs (e.g. purists believe that a “clafoutis” should be called a cake and not a “flan,” and should be made with cherries with the pit intact), as well as the “back-story” of the recipe for the dish. A little story about the dish that might be personal (e.g. “salmon pâté” is a recipe that was given to me by a family that I cooked for one summer when I was 18, and a private chef in Paris.)
Then I explain safety and hygiene issues, how to be a cook and have a proper code of conduct. Lastly and the most important part, I always explain to the children the reasons for my choices of ingredients. They always want to know where I buy everything. I make it clear that organic produce and produce in season and locally grown, are a priority and should be everyone’s first choices when shopping for ingredients. I insist on choosing primary produce or products, versus processed products. I explain to them that the less adulteration and manipulation, the better and safer the products. I emphasize the importance of whole products; (e.g. whole milk will give a better result to your recipes). I share my love for products that are intact in their composition and are cared-for and cared-about during their production. Children understand this information, and later feel a part of the decision process when shopping with their parents. Parents have told me that their children have a much more active role at the grocery store after they have taken my cooking classes; they wanted to have a say in the choice of their vegetables and fruits. I teach them how to recognize a good vegetable, how to pick the right fruits, what to look for that determines its quality. Children who have a garden like to tell me what grows in their gardens, they love to share this information.
When we start weighing the ingredients, I teach the children the importance of the scale versus measuring cups, and we use metric scales. I want them to get a sense and a mental equivalence of grams versus cups. Weighing versus measuring. They love to use the scales and are eager to get the hang of reading grams. They always seem to really enjoy getting the weights of the ingredients just right, down to the gram. This adds a playful aspect to this important step.
I teach the children to read the entire recipe before starting cooking, and to create for themselves a mental picture of the different steps of the recipe so that they can organize their thoughts and envision the process. This builds mental organizational skills and invites them to plug their mind into the project they are about to start. Reading the whole recipe beforehand also minimizes the anticipation of difficulties and builds confidence in their capability for mastery.
Then we start weighing, measuring, cutting, pouring, stirring, etc., one step at a time. I demonstrate the different techniques and I always try to teach them the tricks and secrets; they love to learn something that they know is a plus, something that maybe not everybody knows but that they do! I teach the same techniques, tricks, and secrets to all the children from 3 year old to 18. Children of all ages can learn the authentic way of cooking the same way with the same level of interest, curiosity, and best practices.
During the entire process of cooking, I teach the children all the French vocabulary of the recipes, the ingredients, the techniques, the utensils, etc, that we are using. I quiz them over and over about the vocabulary, so that at the end of class, they know the French words for everything we have used or done. Right before the class is over and the parents are picking up the children, we go over all the steps we went through, and, one more time, all the vocabulary we have learned in our class that day.
When we are done cooking or baking, the children bring home what they have created, along with the recipe, so they can prepare it at home with their family. Parents report that their children express great satisfaction in being teachers to their parents! They are very proud of demonstrating what they have learned. I like the children to take home what they have made because they are so proud to show what they were able to make and to share the dishes with their families. The pride of accomplishment is a very important part of the process of learning to cook in children.
What do you love about teaching children how to cook?
I have loved to teach children how to cook ever since I gave my first cooking class. This is the first job I have ever had that gives me back just as much, or more, energy as I am giving. It is so rewarding. Anything that gives you more energy after you are done than when you started must be the right thing for you to do, that is what I understood very quickly.
Children in the kitchen are fascinating. Depending on their age, they will have a different pace and a different attention span, but all of them are fully absorbed in the different steps of cooking. They love to learn, it is such a pleasure and duty to satiate their curiosity and their hunger to learn.
Teaching children to cook is teaching more than just creating delicious dishes, it is also teaching the different steps of creation; learning to follow steps before getting results; to be patient; to be able to anticipate and plan; to be organized; to learn to clean up after yourself; to acquire a sense of order; and, last but not least, to instill in the child the desire to share with, please, and inspire the ones they love.
One huge emotion that teaching cooking to children inspires in me is a pride. Watching the children, so proud when their parents return, and eager to show what they have made, that makes my heart swell. When I hear children at the end of class asking their parents “Can I come back to the next class?” I know I have done my work right!
The other very rewarding part of my program is that it teaches both culture and language in addition to cooking. I am very passionate about sharing my language and my culture with the children and imparting everything that I know about the dish we are studying: the region it comes from, how it was created (many famous dishes such as “Tarte Tatin” come from a mistake made in the kitchen, or they were created around the only few ingredients found at a specific time of the year in the kitchen). Children are eager for “la petite histoire”, the little anecdote behind the dish.
I feel that my collaboration with the local food scene is related to teaching children how to cook and how to choose the products and food that contribute to their good health and the health of the world that surrounds them. I always point out a why this ingredient is better than that one with regard to its quality: where it came from, who produced it, how they cared for it, how that care made it better. I help them, in my classes, understand their nutritional needs, and I tell where to find the best food. They want to know, they are very curious, they know who sells what, and they like to have a food map imprinted in their mind.
10 years ago, I came up with a fun color method to teach children a less conventional way to learn their nutritional needs regarding fruits and vegetables. Instead of thinking specific nutritional needs the way we know them as adults, I teach them to eat with colors in mind. Yellow, orange, green, red, many colors can convey the many different vitamins and nutrients their bodies and their brains need to grow. Children love to try to remember everything they ate and what colors they covered on that day! It is a fun game. I have also, for many years, been using this principle to help my children prepare healthy lunch boxes for themselves, playing with the color scheme as they make something they will love to eat but that will be nutritional as well.
What do you love about cooking?
Cooking is sharing! Most chefs will confess that their love of cooking originated from watching their grandmothers in the kitchen, or their mothers, be it a professional kitchen or a family kitchen. I am no exception to this. I spent a lot of time of my early childhood in my Italian grandmother’s kitchen, watching, tasting, and smelling while she cooked the Sunday family lunch, and what impressed me the most then and is still imprinted on my memory: how fantastic it smelled.
The chef and cooking instructor in the culinary school I attended as a teenager also shared her passion and knowledge with us, her students, while teaching us how to cook and expounding on everything related to food. The school had a cooking education classroom, with one island for each pair of students. Each island included a stove, a fridge, a sink, a work space, and a cupboard. This was such a clever and educational program for teenagers. We all loved it! If I had the resources to create this exact same classroom for my students today and run my cooking classes in it, I would be the happiest person in the world!
What I love about cooking is every single thing. From deciding what to make, to gathering the ingredients, to selecting the appropriate tools and utensils, to get the scale out of the cupboard, to invite my children to participate, or to decide to cook solo and to please them with the resulting dishes, I love it. I love making again and again classics French dishes that I could make in my sleep. And I love to experiment with more challenging recipes to make it a little special. I believe cooking is an art and, like any art form, it brings a feeling of satisfaction within and feeds you as much as you feed it.
Cooking is beauty. The constant search for beauty in a dish, in a pastry, is an integral part of cooking. We love the dishes and pastries that satisfy our eyes and noses before they satisfy our taste buds. Walking into a pastry shop with beautiful cakes and pastries on display, as well as gorgeous savory dishes, is an enticement to all of the senses that is inspiring and comforting. I teach the children to invest effort also into the presentation of the dish. I always offer ways to embellish cakes with edible flowers, butterflies, silver dragées, etc.
Ever since I took my first cooking class, 40 years ago, I have carefully collected hundreds of recipes that I regularly revisit and read over. They are a true source of inspiration, not only for my cooking but also, somehow, they help me find peace and inspiration in many other parts of my life!
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the heart of the French Alps Valley in a region called Savoie (Savoy). This year Savoie celebrated its 150th anniversary of reunification with France. It first belonged to Italy. Until moving to Boulder, I spent every summer in Italy in our family summer home at the Lake Maggiore, the most magic of all places! Savoie is very similar to Colorado, it is where the most famous ski resorts are, where you can enjoy mountains and lakes. It is a very beautiful area. I lived in different parts of Savoie until I finished college, then I moved to Paris to study pattern making and clothes construction in a fashion school.
Describe any food memories from your childhood.
Food has always had an important place in my life, even as a child. I was born with an appreciation and a curiosity for food that I can’t explain. I’ve always loved to eat, and as soon as I learned how to cook, I loved to take on cooking projects such as desserts for the holidays and preparing family dinners. I had learned and practiced so much by the time I was a teenager that, at age 16, I got my first summer job as a private chef for a family of 10, I loved it! The town I grew up in, in spite of the small number of its inhabitants (10,000) had a very epicurean flair with regard to food and fashion which, no need to say, were my two favorite passions.
What did you want to be when you were little?
When I was little, I wanted to work with children; I loved babies and I would research and read anything I could put my hands on that talked about children. For the longest time I wanted to be a nurse midwife. My plans changed drastically when I decided to go to college to study Italian and English for international business purposes, and then to attend fashion school in Paris. Fashion school was a revelation, this was the very first time in my life I actually enjoyed going to school; I had found my path.
Describe your typical day.
My typical day starts at 6:30am. Morning is sacred. I make coffee in my Italian coffee maker and I have a thick slice of whole-wheat country bread with butter and jam, my favorite breakfast. Then every morning I catch up with my best friend in France, we chat on Facebook; my work day is starting, hers is ending. Then I get up my kids, prepare their breakfast, and get them started on their day.
Afterword, I get to work; I turn on the French evening news while checking my email and my daily agenda. Each day I juggle my kids’ schedules, cooking classes, French classes, my private conversation classes for adults, etc. When not teaching, I work on my on-going projects and research cooking and France. I am very passionate about the world of food and my country of origin. I read papers on-line, listen to French radio shows; I constantly look for what is going on in Paris and in my hometown via Facebook and other available media. Developing these projects in relation to France allows me to feel a little bit at home away from home.
At the end of the day I always cook a dinner from scratch, whether I am by myself or with my children. While I am cooking, (and this is a ritual), I listen to the daily podcast of my favorite cultural radio show. I never miss a show. After dinner, the kids settled down, I like to work on my projects again, as this is a peaceful and quiet time for me to write, organize, brainstorm, and plan for my current projects and visualize future ones.
How were you turned onto the local food scene and organic food?
This came as a natural evolution of the habits shaped in me when I was growing up, and how it was a just a part of life to grow our own food, visit surrounding farms in my area, and buy from local cheese producers. My oldest memory with the local food scene growing up is walking down the path to the farm at dusk, holding the milk pail, and watching the farmer milk the cow before filling up our pail. Even our butchers sold meat from their own pastures, which were located a little higher in the mountain. This was natural, the way things were. It made sense.
When I arrived in Boulder 20 years ago, in 1990, I was turned on the local food scene after I visited a health food store called Alfalfa’s. I was intrigued by the concept that in the U.S., these were special stores. They didn’t exist in France. In France you buy organic meat at your regular butcher store, organic dairy products at the regular dairy store, there was not a one-stop natural and organic shopping experience, where everything could be found in a particular place with a particular style. Yes, we had health food store but they did not compare to what I was discovering. I quickly gathered as much information as I could get my hands on, attended lectures, read all the books on the topic I could find. I started discovering restaurants with a local and organic focus; I loved it! I never stopped feeding this interest for local production and I avidly research the growing interest this type of local agriculture/sourcing is developing. I support local and organic production, this is the way humanity began, and it is the way we will protect our environment and planet and ensure our healthy future. I love that there is a link again between the producers, the restaurant kitchen, our grocery stores, and us, the discerning, choosing customers. This is how it should be everywhere. It is very easy to keep up with the food scene and organic food because there is a lot of information out there, local papers, local magazines, lectures, fliers, and events that are happening at the local farms.
All of this arises from respect. If we can respect ourselves, the way we feed ourselves and feed others, the way we care for ourselves and care for others, then we can respect our soils, our waters, our animals, our farmers, our restaurants, and our place as caring stewards and guests of the planet.
What fueled your interest to become involved in local and organic food?
Information is the key, it generates opportunities. When I found out about the Big Brother/Big Sister’s program 20 years ago after I arrived in Boulder, I decided to become a volunteer Big Sister and I am very happy to still have a very influential role in my Little Sister’s life. When I learned about the Garden to Table (G2T) program (from the Growe Foundation) in Boulder Valley School District’s schools, I was immediately intrigued. I researched the program’s founder Bryce Winton Brown, and then decided to volunteer as a Food Lead for the G2T program at Community Montessori. I teach children to cook what they have harvested from their own school garden, and the next day we sample this food in the cafeteria. I can’t describe how inspiring this experience has been. Watching the children be so enthusiastic about the program, it needs no comment.
This summer I became involved in the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share with Growing Gardens, so I volunteer time each week in exchange for a weekly bag of organic vegetables. The experience has been very positive, getting my hands in the dirt again, communicating with like-minded adults who share a similar experience of both cultivating organic vegetables and communicating their knowledge with young people. Growing Gardens runs a youth project every summer called ¡Cultiva! Teenagers and young adults have the opportunity to work in the gardens while being educated on gardening and cooking. My 15-year-old son has been enjoying this project for the past 2 years, and I am so pleased and proud that he is taking the path of exploring “the field” and has an active role himself in local and organic food production.
Each of us needs to invest a little bit of what we have on hand to ensure the future of our children, be it time, money, energy, or anything else you can spare. By watching us doing, children are inspired and naturally motivated to tag along on our missions, and they feel confident in their ability to originate their own vision.
What do you love about local and organic food?
I love to be supporting a genuine desire to provide a genuine product to us, local citizens of a limited, beautiful planet. Growing organic food, raising animals in a respectful manner, and offering this harvest to us local citizens, is an act that I have chosen to be part of. Organic food means putting food in your body that is just food. Eating organic vegetables means putting vegetables in your body that are just vegetables, nothing more, nothing less. Just vegetables, just as they should be. Just as our ancestors did. It is the best thing you can do for yourself and your loved ones. It is like being part of an equation where all the numbers play an important role to create an accurate result.
Describe your history with community garden plots.
I spent the first 15 years of my life “au jardin” (in the garden). I grew up in a smallish town in an Alps valley where, within walking distance from the center of town, lay the community gardens with different- sized plots covering the needs of different parts of town. There were several pieces of land dedicated to family gardening all over town, and it was very usual for families to rent a plot and cultivate the vegetables and flowers they needed. Most of them were allowed to build rabbit hutches or a chicken coop. There was always a community garden close to your area of town, so it was never too far to walk and people would switch plots as they changed addresses. The distances were very convenient, even for us as children with short little legs. For as long as I can remember, my dad always rented a plot, and the garden was an integral part of our daily lives. It almost felt like a spare room outside of the house. We started, at a very young age, to be a part of the way the garden lived: first, it was a place where we played while our dad was gardening. Then, it became a classroom where we were participants and not only spectators. The tasks required of us expanded with the seasons and our ages and abilities. We started by being allowed to hold the packages of seeds while our dad was preparing the furrows in the soil. Holding the package of seeds feels like a sacred trust for a young child. We were sometimes allowed to water with the watering can; the fun part was learning to siphon the water out of the hose from the big rusty tank that recuperated rainwater and was used to fill up the smaller watering cans. We choked on innumerable gullets of water before mastering the trick!
One day my dad surprised us by creating three small plots in the garden, and had each kid chose his or her own. He had prepared the soil, and then presented us with packets of flower seeds from which we each picked the flowers we wanted to grow. We were in charge of our own plot and the experience was very motivating and rewarding. The garden became an outdoor classroom, in which our dad was the teacher.
I remember going “au jardin” almost every day after school. We were allowed to go on our own, a rare treat of liberty and freedom, and then we would go on Sunday afternoons as a family project. During the gardening season, we spent hours doing things, or doing nothing, but always being there and being a part of something wonderful.
We were growing most of the fresh vegetables our family needed, and also canning what we needed for the winter. What we didn’t grow we bought every Saturday morning at the farmers’ market, where local larger-scale farmers sold their produce alongside plot gardeners hawking their leftover produce from the week.
Growing up in a family that grows their own produce instills in the young children an awareness of the cycles of life, and instills a connection with a larger universe in which the schedules of the planting and times of harvesting synch with the phases of the moon. The influence of the planets conjunct with your garden, and as a gardener you are the orchestrator of this magical connection between earth and “sky.”
Our family’s small plot garden remains a very important part of my childhood, and I have at many occasions, when visiting my hometown, gone back to the plots that my father rented to contemplate and remember the time I spent connecting with nature. I believe it was a beautiful gift from our father to empower us to grow the flowers that would then embellish our apartment and charm our mother.
Are there any habits of the American people that frustrate you, or bring joy to your heart?
I love the American acceptance of and appetite for variety. You can go into any Whole Foods and enjoy sushi, a pretty good tandoori chicken salad, or some really hearty beef brisket with mashed potatoes and a side of button mushrooms or zucchini squash sautéed in butter.
I can be frustrated by the large portions and the emphasis on quantity versus quality sometime. Doesn’t mainstream America realize that “just enough, and it was awesome” is so much better than gobbling down a huge load of cheap, filling junk? I think we are beginning to. I hope so.
Are there any policies or laws of Colorado or the nation that frustrate you, or bring joy to your heart?
Like many people concerned with our food supply, its sustainability and purity, I watched “Food, Inc.,” Robert Kenner’s documentary. I was horrified to discover that the same men holding positions with the FDA also sit on the boards of major agribusinesses. Now I understand the illogical decisions regarding food and health the FDA is making.
This is just one example of things going on that make me cringe. When I first heard about the imposition of one-time-use seeds onto farmers and how this decision was made politically, versus being in favor of agriculture itself and local farmers’ survival, I found it very disturbing. I think that regulations in favor of big agribusiness, as opposed to the local producer, have made real people practicing real agriculture for feeding real people a challenge. They have turned an honorable profession into a world in which integrity, healthfulness, and quality is no longer the focus.
So much violence is generated in large meat and agriculture production. The way workers and farm owners and animals are treated in the process is enough to make us not want to contribute in any way to this business. The way the industry is fooling the consumers by packaging the products they sell, disguising them to look “natural,” is obviously a threat to the consumer’s health and intelligence.
Fortunately, there are still some hard working farmers and families that are fighting the system and standing up for themselves to stick to their belief in organic production and raising animals without violence to deliver to us a product that is worthy of consuming. In Colorado, we are fortunate to be in the center of a conscious movement for organic farms and respectful farmers.
I am ecstatic that the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) has made a conscious, fiscally difficult choice to serve healthy food to its students for their healthy development as people, both in the brain and body. As a parent and a cooking instructor for children, I have been following this closely. I find it so rewarding that we are serving our students food made with ingredients sourced from surrounding farms and honest producers; this is a big sign of our respect toward our children and future generations. A big shout-out to BVSD and its Nutrition Services staff!!
What is your vision of a perfect world?
Because we have a vision of the world that feels more immediate than ever, through social media, we have a tendency to believe that the world is at our doorstep and that we have a grip on it. Men used to fight to save their territory, their nation, their ideology. Today everybody wants to save the planet. The savior archetype has gone mainstream!
When my son was in kindergarten, he was handed a piece of paper with the beginning of a sentence that said: In a perfect world ……… and the children were asked to complete the sentence. My son wrote: “In a perfect world…….the world would be made out of marshmallows”.
Visualizing a perfect world is a difficult exercise because it begins with visualizing everything that is not perfect and how to remedy the problems and that can be a bit overwhelming.
I believe that in a perfect world, each child would be treated with respect and would have access to what he or she needs to physically, nutritionally, and emotionally develop and grow into a balanced and positive citizen of the world. Given that we have the commitment to do this, we and our future can rest easy in good hands, the hands that we created, nurtured, and taught by example.
For more information about Marie’s French cooking classes for children and after-school French classes in Boulder, check her out at The Language of Food!