Liz Wilkinson loves to cook, and over the past decade that passion led her to a new realization: she also loves to teach others how to cook. A veteran cooking teacher, Wilkinson runs Aubergines Etc., her Princeton-based cooking business that offers a meal delivery service as well as occasional classes.
Growing up, she was surrounded by good food. “I was raised by a mom in England who never bought anything in a package, so she was always cooking,” she says. “So I’ve always had ingredients and cooking in my life.”
“I was starting to bake and cook from a young age,” she adds. “And I realize now how lucky I am that I’ve been putting good food in my stomach. I’ve never been given processed food.” Her parents, she notes, are both alive and well at age 86.
Her father worked for Lucas Electrical, a company that produced car parts but also sponsored a Zagat-like restaurant guide in England. Her father developed a friendship with legendary food critic Egon Ronay, and together they established the British Academy of Gastronomes — a group of society-types who would go to different restaurants and offer assessments.
After studying French and Spanish at university in Bristol, Wilkinson moved to France. “That was sensational,” she says. “French markets, French food — all of that is just still a source of pleasure to me when I go over there.”
In France she worked in Lyon as a translator and interpreter and later moved to La Defense on the outskirts of Paris, where she worked as a CFO’s assistant. She made a good living, but the job was boring.
Then in 1999 her then-husband’s job brought the family to Princeton, where Wilkinson stayed home with her three young children. “When they got a little older I wanted to do something I was passionate about rather than going back to a desk job,” she says.
Her friends suggested she cook. “I literally went around the neighborhood dropping off pamphlets” offering home-cooked meals, she says. She also traveled to Italy to take cooking classes, and upon her return her friends begged her to teach what she had learned. “I discovered I loved that, and it quickly became after-school cooking classes.”
“Then I found that the after school cooking classes were immensely popular and so pleasant,” she says. “There’s nothing nicer than seeing a child triumphant because they’ve mastered a soufle or something of that sort.”
“You didn’t have to have a particular talent for it. They were having success every time they came, and that made them feel good,” she continues, noting that students would frequently sing happily while they cooked. “One part of it was teaching a useful skill, but also helping them feel good about themselves.”
She started teaching in the kitchen at the Princeton Y’s Bramwell House, but eventually expanded her own kitchen and conducted classes there. Moving to her home also allowed access to her garden, where students could grow and pick herbs. She also began offering week-long summer camps, using a professional kitchen on Route 206.
The professional kitchen was fitting for the serious cooking going on inside. “I was very specific that it’s not going to be about making brownies and frosting cupcakes,” says Wilkinson, who named her operation after the French word for eggplant, aubergine. “I think that’s why the parents were so thrilled, because I made fairly sophisticated recipes.”
“With the summer camp what was really fun was having the same kids for five days,” she adds. “We could do a bread recipe or make cheese,” and the campers could see how a food can transform.
And in a program where the first thing students get is a chef’s knife, safety is a big part of the lesson plan. “Whenever I start a class with kids they all get a chef’s knife — and I’m starting them early, at age 10. I teach knife skills and knife safety — there’s a whole technique to it.” Other safety points include wearing close-toed shoes, keeping hair tied back, not having sleeves that could catch fire, and how to put out stove-top fires.
But above all, she says, teaching others to cook is about “teaching people to understand what a recipe is telling you.”
“Being a teacher, you have to try to remember or put yourself in the shoes of your students. Everything that’s obvious to you isn’t necessarily obvious to your students.”
While she no longer offers a camp, she still loves to teach cooking and gives private lessons, including recently to students at one of Princeton University’s residential colleges.
She is also focusing on her home-cooked meal delivery service, which grew from parents asking if they could eat what their kids had cooked in her classes. She has regular clients who don’t know what food they’ll get. “It’s like I’m their mom and I say ‘this is your dinner tonight.’ Anything I give them, they eat.” She also sends an e-mail blast with a weekly menu from which clients can order specific meals. And she does the occasional small catering job.
“Food is so important in making people feel better,” she says. “It can be so therapeutic.”
For more information visit www.auberginesetc.com.
#b#Learn to Cook This Summer#/b#
Stuart Country Day School offers two week-long co-ed culinary arts camps: Sous Chefs for grades 2 to 5 and Executive Chefs for grades 6 to 9. In both programs campers learn about nutrition and diet as well as kitchen safety and presentation. Meals and desserts are prepared from scratch using fresh ingredients. Campers get to eat their creations at the end of each day, and leftovers go home to friends and family.
Both camps cost $519 for the week. Sous Chefs runs July 31 to August 4, and Executive Chefs runs August 7 to 11.
For more information visit www.stuartschool.org/summer-camps.
ESF Camps offers two cooking programs on the campus of the Lawrenceville School in collaboration with Vetri Community Partnership, a Philadelphia-based organization that aims to “help kids experience the connection between healthy eating and healthy living” through “fresh food, hands-on experiences, and education.” A Taste of Italy runs from July 24 to 28 and A Taste of Mexico runs July 31 to August 4. Both are for grades 3 to 7 and cost $585.
For more information visit www.esfcamps.com.
For the first time this summer the Boys & Girls Clubs of Mercer County is offering three one-week morning cooking camps designed for ages 8 and up at its Lawrence location. A professional chef leads lessons on knife handling and safety and introduces techniques including sauteing, searing, baking, and grilling. Each day ends with a feast, and each session includes one full-day field trip. Camp sessions are July 17 to 21, July 24 to 28, and August 14 to 18 and cost $125 per week.
For more information visit www.bgcmercer.org.
Princeton Day School offers five cooking-themed programs throughout the summer. Clay Oven Cooking for grades 3 to 5 makes use of the school’s camper-built clay oven to make bread, pizzas, and roast vegetables harvested from the school garden. For the youngest aspiring chefs, grades 1 and 2, Kitchen Concoctions introduces simple recipes and kitchen safety basics.
Campers with a sweet tooth can create desserts from around the world in Just Desserts, for grades 3 to 8. And campers in grades 5 to 8 can explore all things cupcake in Cupcake Boss. Campers in grades 5 to 8 with an eye on the restaurant industry can sign up for Everyday Dishes, which covers menus, recipe writing, preparation, and clean-up from breakfast through dessert.
Clay Oven Cooking is a full-day camp, $450. Other programs are half-days, $250.
For more information visit www.pds.org/summer-programs.
Camp College on Mercer County Community College’s West Windsor campus offers co-ed Kids in the Kitchen camps for ages 7 to 10 in the mornings and ages 10 to 13 in the afternoons, weekly throughout the summer. Each week offers a different theme including chocolate, Italian food, restaurant week, holiday fare, and ice cream making. Tuition is $175.
For more information visit campcollege.mccc.edu.
The Princeton YMCA offers two one-week sessions of Camp Chefs. The Everyday Cooking program for ages 6 to 8 teaches kids to create an assortment of dishes and desserts and to serve them with style. Each week includes walking trips to downtown eateries for hands-on experience.
For ages 9 to 12 the Y offers one session of Everyday Cooking and one session of Global Gastronomical Tour, teaching culinary skills for all meals and all occasions.
YMCA membership is required. The sessions are July 3 to 7 and August 7 to 11. Tuition is $355 to $390 depending on membership level.
For more information visit www.princetonymca.org.