Eliza Martin stands in front of a high school auditorium stage where, more than a decade ago, she portrayed Maria in “The Sound of Music” and Belle in “Beauty and the Beast.”
But this time, she is wearing her chef’s uniform, and wielding a knife that definitely isn’t a prop.
Late last month, Martin, now the director of education for a San Francisco cooking school for children, returned to Pequea Valley High School, where she was an actress, athlete and the 2007 class valedictorian.
At two assemblies for Pequea Valley students and an evening program for their parents and families, Martin shared her passion for teaching young people to cook for themselves or with their families, so they can eat in a healthier way.
Martin, who has worked in American and multicultural restaurants in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, wants to see students learn to cook with their families —before they go off to college or out on their own.
She says it can give them the power to feed themselves a healthy dish for less than the cost of a fast-food meal.
“A lot of us don’t have a really great relationship with the food we’re consuming,” Martin tells the students as she demonstrates how quickly they can make a batch of turkey chili. “Sixty-five percent of the food Americans eat is already prepackaged and chock full of preservatives.”
That means less than half of what we’re eating is fresh, good-for-us food” she says. “That makes me go bonkers.
“I found out that your generation is going to be the first generation not to outlive your parents’ lifespan on Earth,” says Martin, who learned to cook out of necessity while studying abroad in London.
“We’re actually going backwards, and that has everything to do with what we’re eating,” she says.
In an effort to change that, she teaches the students some basic knife skills and introduces them to some new spices.
And she offers them all little samples of the chili, as well as miso soup, banana ice cream and granola —all of which she’s made right before their eyes.
After one of these cooking demonstrations, we sat down with Martin to ask her some questions about her work and about her advice for helping students eat in a healthy way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you switch from acting to cooking?
When I left high school, I was determined to be an actress. I went to school (DeSales University) for musical theater and communications.
When I studied abroad in London, I just started to fall in love with cooking, and that kind of changed my whole scope.
However, I ended up doing a (senior year performing) showcase in New York that ended up going really well, so I got commercial agent interest and so I ended up moving to New York.
I was in the middle of a one-on-one acting class, and I had an instructor tell me that everything about me was great, but that my look was all wrong, and I got really upset in that moment and I felt like I had lost something.
And so I said, “Never mind,” and that weekend I signed up for culinary school (the Institute of Culinary Education). And I never looked back. I kind of needed that roadblock to push me in another direction.
Where did you go after culinary school?
I started (cooking) in New York, and I worked at a high-end American restaurant and at “The Rachael Ray Show” and then Saveur magazine. I was running back and forth between being a line cook and working at the food magazine every day, pingponging all over the city.
And I got involved with a cooking competition that was sponsored by the James Beard Foundation (Women in Culinary Leadership), and so I applied and was accepted as a competitor. And then I won the competition. That moved me to Chicago, where I worked at an Indian restaurant.
And after that I worked at a nonprofit (Inspiration Kitchen) that helped homeless people become line cooks. I had kind of fallen in love with teaching, already.
And then I transitioned into children’s cooking, and I started my own catering company and then an aquaponic farming company.
And then my friend from New York asked if I’d be willing to relocate again, and moved me to San Francisco, where I took over the executive chef role at an Italian restaurant.
I really tired myself out. It was an incredible restaurant to work. But I still felt like I needed to be teaching, and not behind closed doors. So I now work at a children’s culinary school, called Culinary Artistas.
What form do the classes take?
We start at age 4 and go all the way up to teens. We do full-day camps during school closures and over the summer. We do children’s food-themed birthday parties.
We do classes that are one hour long for very young students and their families. Then we’ll do after-school programming, and those are in the schools themselves.
(Healthy eating) is part of the essential piece that the culinary world just isn’t teaching. The mission of Culinary Artistas is the healthy cooking. It’s often vegetarian, to prevent the cross-contamination, with little kids touching raw protein.
What do you see as the main barrier that keeps high school students from learning to cook?
I think in the household it’s not necessarily valued. In mine it was, so I was lucky. I think in a lot of households now, because we’re so busy, it’s not something people grow up with, and it’s not something they really value. But I think there’s also a lot of fear in the kitchen. There’s a lot of anxiety about being in the kitchen, because of the Food Network. Because we’ve turned it into some popularity contest. It’s not as difficult as everybody makes it seem.
We’ve somehow, along the way, lost our roots — all this food heritage from whatever upbringing we had, whatever cultural heritage we had. Those recipes are not being passed down anymore.
What are some things families can do to make school-age kids’ meals healthier?
Not eating fast food would, I think, be No. 1. I think kids who cook are going to be kids who taste. So if you get kids to cook with you at dinnertime, they’re going to be more interested in expanding their palate later on in life, or anywhere they go, they’re going to be more adventurous.
I think anytime they can incorporate something fresh — fruit or vegetables especially — that’s going to be game-changing. Instead of fruit snacks, pack an apple. Finding affordable ways to increase fresh food intake is going to be essential.
I feel like all the rage now is the meal prep. If you don’t have 30 minutes a day to set aside for meal prep, then set aside an hour on the weekends to cook for the rest of the week. Make a batch of chili; that can feed me for the rest of the week. Having the forethought that your health is on the line, being able to make just one (homemade) meal you can swap out for what you would have eaten instead.
What was the food culture like at home when you were growing up (in Narvon)?
My father was so creative (in the kitchen). He would watch Julia Child, and try to re-create something magical. I was so lucky growing up. I really took it for granted. We would have these steak dinners on Saturday night — he was a grill master. He smoked his own meat and his own fish. My mom’s side is Italian; we’d make ravioli for Easter.
What’s next for you?
My goal and aim is to have more of these speaking gigs starting to happen. My mission is to eventually become a speaker full time. I don’t know any other way to get the message out as fast as I want to get it out.
For more information on Martin and her work, go to ElizatheChef.com.