When Chef Robert Collins was stabbed in the neck in 2007 while deployed in Spain as a customs agent for the U.S. Navy, he made a deal with God.
“I told God, ‘If you pull me through and bring me home in one piece, I’ll do anything.’ He said, ‘I want you to teach kids.’ I said are you joking? I don’t like kids.”
The retired Navy veteran pulled through but didn’t quite stick to his end of the bargain.
“I wrote a business plan and had a vision, but I came back home and did other things,” Collins said.
That included opening a restaurant and a catering business. But Collins heard the calling again in 2016.
“He said enough. I want you to do this.”
Chef Robert Collins with some of his students at Youthage Culinary in Mundelein. Chef Robert teaches kids ages 4 and older how to cook healthy, balanced meals, as well as knife skills and different cooking techniques.
– courtesy of Youthage Culinary
So Collins started Youthage Culinary in Mundelein, a Black-owned nonprofit organization that gives kids of all ages hands-on training to learn knife handling, various cooking techniques, safety in the kitchen and leadership skills. And, most importantly to Collins, he teaches them to prepare well-balanced meals and why it’s important to eat healthy foods.
“It is a ministry for me to educate kids about diabetes, hypertension and all the health constraints on our kids,” said Collins, who became an advocate for diabetes in 2014 after losing six family members in a year to the disease.
“These kids are eating Flaming Hot Cheetos and using the microwave to fix meals. That is causing so many problems.”
Collins has 29 years in the food service industry, including 20 with the Navy, where he said he would serve 21,000 recruits per meal at the Great Lakes Naval Station in North Chicago. He takes all of that experience and pours it into teaching kids what they need to know to be confident in the kitchen.
Classes range from Tiny Chefs for ages 4-8 and Junior Chefs for ages 9-14 all the way up to classes for adults. He even offers private culinary classes and parties.
In the classes, kids learn sauteing, baking, broiling and other cooking techniques; tips for serving foods; and leadership.
Chef Robert Collins, owner of Youthage Culinary in Mundelein, teaches a student how to make miniature quiches in one of his Tiny Chefs classes.
– courtesy of Youthage Culinary
“We teach them how to communicate,” Collins said. “If they’re not texting, they can’t communicate. We teach them to be a voice. I pick a captain when we put meals together. I usually pick the introvert to lead, because it inspires them and shows them they can do it.”
Guest chefs come in to volunteer their time to teach the kids different techniques. A cake decorator recently came in to teach piping.
“The kids have a lot of fun. We have cake wars and cupcake wars. It shows them they can be creative in the kitchen,” Collins said.
But it’s not just about food prep. Chef Collins also teaches the kids about nutrition and exercise for a well-rounded program. Youthage has a garden-to-table program, where they grow fresh produce, and the kids visit butcher markets. They also visit gardens where they learn the difference between a root vs. plant, and how to use herbs to season their food to avoid excess salt.
Collins also takes his message to the schools in and around Lake County, as well as summer camps. He partners with nonprofits and College of Lake County, and also does catering with the kids for local churches and other events.
“Anywhere kids are, we try to be,” he said. “I have a deep concern for the health and well-being of our kids. No one came to my school to talk about diabetes and hypertension.”
Tiny Chef classes are $25, while Junior Chef classes are $35, with a 4-pack available for $125. This donation includes a hair net, apron, supplies and the food. There is usually food for the parents to taste as well.
Youthage Culinary in Mundelein teaches kids and adults how to cook healthy, balanced meals. There are a variety of programs to choose from, including private classes.
– courtesy of Youthage Culinary
But it’s not just the kids Collins is trying to reach. It’s never too late for adults to change their eating habits. Chef Collins will cater to medical conditions and participants will learn to take care of themselves through food.
Adult classes are $40.
Youthage also offers a leadership-training program for companies to bring teams of employees in to learn to work together. Managers become the subordinates and have to follow orders from employees. A sort of role reversal.
All of these different programs help keep Youthage Culinary open. The 501c3 nonprofit is always looking for more volunteers to help set up and break down for classes and events, as well as do some fundraising. It also needs volunteer chefs to come in and teach the kids their specialty, whether that is a technique or a recipe.
And Chef Collins stresses that Youthage Culinary is in real need of sponsors. He is looking for a grant writer to help with finding more money.
“We’ve been here for six years, and we try to get the word out and brand ourselves, but it’s been hard. When we first opened our doors we didn’t qualify for grants, and companies had criteria we didn’t meet,” he said.
Right now, Collins said he is using his retirement fund to keep the doors open, so any help he can get would be appreciated for this worthwhile mission.
More than anything, Collins wants families to come back to the basics of good, healthy living.
“Sitting down at the dinner table or cooking in the kitchen together — learning to cook properly — that’s a piece that’s missing these days,” Collins said.
“I would love for people to come out and give us a try. They won’t regret it.”
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What: A Black-owned nonprofit organization that teaches kids of all ages and abilities how to cook healthy food using a variety of techniques.
Where: 508 N. Seymour Ave., Mundelein
Cost: A donation of $25 for Tiny Chef classes; $35 for Junior Chef classes, with a 4-pack available for $125; $40 for adult classes.
Details: Email [email protected] or call (847) 865-1010.
Help needed: Youthage Culinary is looking for area chefs to volunteer their time. The nonprofit is also looking for a grant writer to volunteer or to be hired. Contact Chef Robert Collins for more information.