Cooking lessons from dancing tweens

Two young girls, ages 11 and 12, teach other kids how to embrace healthy eating

Cooking lessons from dancing tweens

Photography by Andrew Tolson

Very early one Saturday not long ago, Katrina Pacher and Sloane Wilson put on clean aprons and headed into the kitchen at Ritorno restaurant in Oakville, Ont., to make chicken parmigiana. While her father got in position with his video camera, Katrina, 11, adjusted the black scrunchie in her ponytail, and Sloane, 12, got some last-minute coaching from her mom, Donna Wilson: “This time, maybe read out the list of ingredients.” It was the girls’ second video of the day for their 18-month-old website. “But,” Wilson observed wryly, “now, they look awake.”

After more than 100 videos, the girls, friends since preschool, no longer get nervous before a shoot. started when they learned about the childhood obesity epidemic in health class, and decided to use the Internet to teach kids how to embrace healthy living: they provide tutorials on popular dance steps, receive fitness instruction from experts, and demonstrate how to make kid-friendly meals—with a little help. Katrina’s parents have Web-based jobs, and Wilson used to work in film production; together, they built the site and a YouTube channel, which has had 6.7 million views so far.

The week before, the girls had dressed up like elves and made a Christmas-themed dance video—both have taken dance classes for years—but neither could be called a show-off. Katrina, who wrinkles her nose quizzically when asked if she wears makeup for filming, giggles, “When I look back at our earlier videos—”
“We looked so young!” Sloane finishes.

Pulling on a brightly coloured chef’s hat, Julia Hanna, Ritorno’s effervescent owner, announces, “Culinary traditions are not being passed down, and that leaves space for companies like McDonald’s to profit.” This was why she’d volunteered to teach the girls how to make chicken parmigiana. Plus, she says, “I’m just so tired of people being sad about food!” Then she spotted her son John Paul, decked out in kitchen whites and washing dishes, and decided he should be in the video, too.

Brenda Pacher, Katrina’s mom, was all for it: “Great idea, we want to get boys. Most of our viewers are girls.” JP looked stricken. “No, Mom!” he muttered, as only a 12-year-old boy can. “I really, really don’t want to.”

“Get over here JP, you don’t need to say anything,” his mother persisted gaily, though something in her tone indicated she meant business. JP shuffled over, grumbling under his breath about the heat in the kitchen. “You’re acting like a star already!” Hanna crowed, planting a big kiss on his cheek.

As the camera rolled, she demonstrated how to butterfly a chicken breast, then handed Katrina an imposing and very sharp knife. “The most dangerous thing in any kitchen is a dull knife,” Hanna pronounced, as Katrina, petite and bubbly, sawed gingerly at the chicken. “Do it with love, don’t be afraid of the chicken! It won’t bite you,” Hanna instructed as the kids tentatively dipped the chicken in a bowl filled with beaten egg whites. When it was Sloane’s turn to coat the chicken in a bread crumb and herb mixture, she was exhorted to pound it. Sloane, who is tall and has a grave manner, dutifully banged the chicken with her fist a few times. As the three kids slid the chicken pieces into a huge frying pan, Hanna explained, “We’re not deep-frying—that’s nasty. We’re just frying for a minute, before baking it in the oven.”

By now, restaurant staff were bustling around, getting ready to serve lunch, and once the chicken had been popped in the oven, Katrina flopped over a table, yawning. Sloane remarked, “This is the first time we’ve shot in a restaurant, usually we just do it at home. It’s pretty cool.”

And today, they agreed, they’d learned a lot that would benefit their tween viewers: put a damp towel underneath your cutting board so it doesn’t wiggle; line pans with parchment paper so cleanup is a breeze. Next, Hanna was going to teach them how to make sweet potato fries.

But first she had a question: “Girls, have you ever burned yourselves?”

“Yes!” they cried.

“Well then,” Hanna concluded, “you are chefs.” The girls, who don’t bat an eyelash when asked to prepare family dinners, both smiled.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.