Chef Erin Dow doesn’t see all that much difference between cooking for 7-year-olds and cooking for rock stars. She has done plenty of both in her more than 15 years in the kitchen. Second graders and pop divas each have specific likes and dislikes — but with a little creativity on the chef’s end, both can be surprisingly open-minded about what they’ll eat.
“Rock stars are picky, and kids can be picky, too. But people underestimate kids all the time,” said Dow, a Fort Kent native now living with her family and chickens on their farm in Winthrop. “If you just give them a chance and let them really see what the food is all about, they’ll try just about anything.”
Dow, 34, is the expert chef at Guiding Stars, a nutritional guidance program that partners with businesses, such as Hannaford supermarkets and hospitals including Eastern Maine Medical Center, to help customers make healthful food choices. Before she turned her focus to childhood and family nutrition, however, she was caterer to the stars, cooking gourmet meals for Portland-based Professional Catering Services. She served meals backstage to the likes of Aerosmith, KISS, Britney Spears, Anthony Bourdain and Bill Clinton.
“I learned how to cook for people with specific palates,” said Dow. “I learned how to be flexible and how to get people interested in the idea of trying something new.”
Two years ago, Dow gave up the life of a traveling rock star chef to focus on her three children — Patrick, 11, Ian, 9, and Phoebe, 6 — and to devote herself to Guiding Stars and the cause that’s now well known across the country: the battle against childhood obesity and the goal of children eating healthful school lunches. With her humor, laid-back vibe and intricate tattoos, however, she retains a bit of rock star attitude — she was featured on the Fort Kent episode of Food Coma TV, after all, and she sometimes works as a consultant for her former job as a backstage chef for A-listers.
As anyone who has watched Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” knows, getting healthful foods in schools is an uphill battle, but Dow — who has been featured on Oliver’s website — has some new tactics in the fight. To start, Dow goes into schools — currently in the Windham school district — under the auspices of first lady Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move To School program, where she works one-on-one with kitchen staff to introduce healthful new recipes into the daily menu.
“It’s very different from what you see on Jamie Oliver’s show,” said Dow. “We get to really sit down and talk to the women in the kitchen, and most of them are thrilled to be able to get to really cook something, instead of just defrost something. These women love to cook. We forget that. And I’m not exactly Gordon Ramsay in the kitchen. I’m a lot nicer than that.”
On her own, Dow has partnered with her hometown school district in Winthrop to bring basic cooking skills to classrooms. Jinny Bryant, who teaches the combination first and second grade class at Winthrop Grade School, has brought Dow into her classroom to teach students skills ranging from how to bake bread to how to properly crack an egg.
“These kids so often don’t know where food comes from,” said Bryant. “The way Erin does it, she shows them exactly how it’s made, she ties in different cultures from around the world, she explains all kinds of different things about it. It’s such an important life skill that’s being totally lost. And the kids are far more capable than even I expected.”
In a cooking lesson Dow led in Bryant’s class in mid-January, she and a group of 20 six- and seven-year-olds made five loaves of pumpkin bread, four quiches and two huge trays of cinnamon buns. The task took less than two hours and the food was delivered to a teacher at the school who currently is on medical leave.
“That’s about how much time it would take for me to do it on my own. They really got into it,” said Dow. “Maybe teaching kids those cooking skills at an early age would help to solve part of the childhood obesity problem. Maybe if we teach them to understand the process and expect food to taste good, they’ll expect better food both at home and at school. We don’t have home economics class anymore, and that’s a shame.”
As a mother, Dow understands how hard it can be to find time to cook food from scratch for kids. But she also understands that it’s equally important for children to have a positive relationship with food to prevent future health problems such as obesity.
“Believe me, sometimes a box of Lucky Charms in the morning would make my life a whole lot easier,” said Dow. “I get it. I don’t preach. But I think people just assume that all kids want is junk food, and that’s seriously unfair to everyone.”
Changing attitudes within school kitchens is one tactic, but Dow’s work in the classroom is something that could potentially have a more fundamental impact — if what she has seen since she started working with Bryant’s students is any indicator.
“If you teach a kid how to make rice and beans in the classroom, and then send them home with the ingredients to make it with their parents, you’ve just taught them an amazing skill. They’ll never go hungry,” said Dow. “Not to mention the social skills that go along with cooking with someone else.”
Funding for programs to combat childhood obesity and encourage healthful lunches is hard to come by, but Dow believes that every step is big.
“If you’re talking about a revolution to change the way people eat in America, then even a baby step is a revolution,” said Dow. “If you get regular milk in there instead of chocolate milk, that’s a step. If you get candy and chips out of there, that’s a step. Every little bit counts.”