Julie Burleson is the mastermind behind the popular culinary arts franchise – Young Chefs Academy. The cooking school aims to educate kids about the importance of healthy eating by introducing them to the basics of food preparation and meal planning. Launched in 2003, the franchise has branched out to 30 locations in seven countries.
Following the unveiling of her latest venture, Young Chefs @ Heart, that offers cooking workshops for adults, I caught up with Burleson to talk about all things healthy eating.
Excerpts from the conversation:
Noma Nazish: How did you get interested in setting up a culinary business?
Julie Burleson: Owning my own business was something I had always dreamt of, I just didn’t know what the business would be. Growing up, my father encouraged me and my siblings and to pursue our dreams and I always had a passion for cooking. In college, I made and sold custom gingerbread houses for extra money. Later, I owned a culinary herb shop and even made home cooked meals and delivered them to busy moms. That’s how it all started. But I didn’t find my business niche until I launched the Young Chefs Academy.
NN: What inspired you to start Young Chefs Academy?
JB: I was preparing orders for a catering business I had started in my kitchen at home when my five-year-old son begged to help. I felt torn between spending time with him and completing my work. The idea hit me at that moment: “kids cooking school.” My children were already helping me prepare meals by getting ingredients and mixing them together. They loved assisting with meal preparation. I thought, “Why not take it to the next level by enabling children to immerse themselves fully in becoming chefs?” It was a lightbulb moment, and when I searched the Internet for this business model, I found nothing. Next, I scheduled a kids’ cooking class at a local restaurant to test my concept idea. I called some friends and told them about the opportunity to involve their children in a small cooking class in our Waco community. That class filled and sparked so much interest that I knew I had to build upon it. From then on, I knew this would become my permanent career. Once the concept was a proven success, I knew I had to start the first franchise of its kind.
NN: How do the kids benefit from making their own food?
JB: As we know too well, obesity is at an all-time high. Studies show children are more likely to eat healthy foods when they prepare them – this is why cooking from scratch is heavily incorporated into our curriculum. One of our biggest joys is when we see a child’s face light up at those moments when they can identify a spice by taste or smell, when they discover the science behind how ingredients interact during the cooking/baking process, can suggest a healthier substitute for an ingredient such as white flour and so on. Children have a deeper understanding of what they’re eating and how it affects their health when they understand these things. I liken it to when we teach our children math skills. There’s a reason math teachers don’t start kids out with calculators before they have learned their times’ tables. The same goes for teaching kids to cook from scratch.
NN: What’s your secret to making healthy, kid-friendly meals?
JB: Involving kids in experimenting with certain recipes. Don’t ever try to “sneak” behind their backs. For example, one of our classes involved making healthier versions of some of our favorite recipes. The kids were so excited to have their parents taste their black bean brownies and guess the secret ingredient that was used as a substitute for white flour. Because the kids were involved in the process, they were excited to taste their own creation.
NN: What’s your best advice for cooking healthfully?
JB: Educate yourself on the science of certain ingredients and how they affect your health. For example, if you know which vegetables have a lower Glycemic index, you may be more prone to choose a vegetable such as roasted radishes, which may satiate your hunger just as much as that baked potato you were planning to eat.
NN: What’s your advice on making healthier food choices while eating out?
JB: Empower yourself with knowledge. In today’s day and age, you can pretty much find anything you want to know about nutrition information for most menus. I usually find that if I look these things up prior to eating out, I can decide what to order before sitting down at the table and being enticed by all of the less healthy choices available.
NN: How do you personally stay motivated to eat healthy?
JB: I avoid fast food restaurants at all costs. My husband and I enjoy cooking together and we really love finding recipes that are not only healthy but also are interesting. To broaden our horizons, we love discovering new spices, healthier ingredients and food from different cultures.
NN: What’s your all-time favorite healthy recipe?
JB: I don’t really have a favorite, but a summer go-to is a grilled turkey burger with feta cheese and purple onions on a whole-wheat bun with a mint-cucumber yogurt topping.
NN: Lastly, what’s your advice for people who struggle to stick to a healthy diet?
JB: Don’t beat yourself up. Desserts and pastries have their place. Can you imagine a world without Macarons, Pastry Shops or ice cream? That would be a sad world in my opinion. However, moderation is the key. Also, commit to reading and educating yourself on food and nutrition. Try to focus on the benefits of eating healthier and discovering the amazing flavors and cuisines found in healthier dishes that are there to be discovered and enjoyed.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.