Monday, December 5, 2011

Mentoring Magic

I think it started when she was still in the womb. While pregnant with my oldest daughter, Cami, I was diagnosed with hyperemesis. For those of you lucky enough to NOT know this term, it’s defined as “unrelenting, excessive pregnancy-related nausea and/or vomiting.” Think of it as EXTREME “morning” sickness 24/7 for the entire pregnancy.

While pregnant with Cami, I was either in bed, on the couch or on the floor in the bathroom. Ironically, one thing that helped me get through the never-ending days and nights of nausea was the Food Network. I could barely keep down ANY food or drink. So I was living vicariously through these shows – watching someone else prepare and taste these wonderful dishes. And so began my (and my yet-to-be-born daughter’s!) love affair with cooking shows.

Like most little girls, Cami’s childhood has included a toy kitchen, pretend food, kid-size cooking utensils, aprons and the ever-popular Easy-Bake oven. Our special mama/daughter dates almost always involve a stop at a café and bakery. Today, 8 year old Cami enjoys helping in the kitchen and one of her many long-standing career plans (besides being a fashion designer and jockey) is to own and operate her own restaurant. Cami’s highest praise for a meal is, “Mama, you HAVE to give me this recipe for my restaurant!”

As a home educating family, cooking has been a great jumping-off point for many of our lessons. We’ve explored family history by preparing traditional dishes from our ancestors’ countries. Earlier this year, we taught ourselves how to can applesauce. We covered the “science” of canning, the “math” of measurements, the “history” of life before refrigeration, the “geography” of where our apples were grown, and “art” to decorate our jars. And there was lots of reading involved!

A couple of years ago (while watching Food Network!), Cami learned about BabyCakes in New York City. As both of Cami’s younger siblings suffer from severe dairy allergies, she BEGGED me to go online and see if there were any dairy-free bakeries in the Chicago area. After a bit of googling, we found The Bleeding Heart Bakery – local.sustainable.punk-rock pastry. While it’s a bit of a drive, we started making the trip to their shop in Oak Park for their vegan cupcakes and other baked goods.

This year, BHB opened a new location in West Town. Their new café’s initial offerings were “all brunch, all the time.” While it’s a longer drive from our home, we decided to go for breakfast to belatedly celebrate my birthday. (Daddy had to work, but we promised to bring him home a cupcake!) We woke up, brushed our teeth and went in our pajamas!

It was a great outing! We had pink princess hibiscus pancakes with edible glitter, dairy-free waffles, and biscuits & vegan gravy.

We even picked out some baked goods to take home. As we were getting ready to leave, Michelle Garcia walked in! I recognized her from the BHB website and Food Network shows, so I pointed her out to the Littles. Well, Cami wouldn’t leave until she had to chance to talk to Michelle.

Cami asked Michelle for her autograph and told her that someday she wanted to be a chef and have a bakery and restaurant. Michelle graciously invited Cami to come in and spend a morning with her to learn about baking and running a restaurant.

Shortly thereafter, Cami decided to dress as Michelle Garcia for Halloween. (Yes, we pored over pics on the ‘net trying to copy Michelle’s unique style. I was beginning to feel a bit like a stalker!) Of course, this led to another trip to the café on October 31st for breakfast. Michelle was kind enough to arrange her schedule so she’d be at that location on that morning.

We had to postpone Cami’s visit a few times due to sickness and travel. But Michelle and I emailed back-and-forth. And Cami kept herself busy designing cupcakes in her sketchpad and dreaming up new flavor combinations to share with Michelle. Last week, Cami FINALLY got to have her day at the bakery!

When we arrived, Michelle led Cami to the glass-
enclosed cake building studio at the front of the restaurant. They had a small pumpkin cake ready for Cami to decorate.

They chose colors and mixed frosting. Michelle gave Cami some basic instructions on a few tools and techniques and set her loose!

When she finished the first cake, they brought out a dozen chocolate vegan cupcakes, a small vegan cake and a large “practice cake” for Cami to decorate.

Michelle had a cake competition that evening and had to do some prep work. She asked Cami if she’d like to watch, but Cami was pretty happy decorating. So Michelle’s staff of cake decorators -- Sam, Megan and Sally -- helped Cami finish her cupcakes and cakes with Disco Dust (aka edible glitter) and fondant decorations. Each of these young women spoke about their training and interests that led to their work at The Bleeding Heart Bakery.

Afterwards, we joined Michelle in the back kitchen to watch her prepare for the Holiday Rock & Roll cake competition. This benefit for Share Our Strength challenged Chicago’s top pastry chefs to put their own spin on the classic French holiday dessert, the Bûche de Noël -- more commonly known as the Yule Log.

As she worked, Michelle explained so much – the flavors and textures in her competition piece; the ingredients, kitchen equipment, recipes, and techniques going on all around us. She shared her career path and the challenges she faced as a young mother starting a new business. We watched as she directed her staff, juggled scheduling, and completed dozens of other tasks – all while working on her cake AND talking with us!

completed competition cake photo by Sky Full of Bacon

In total, Cami and I spent over four hours at the bakery. It was a wonderful once-in-a-lifetime experience. Until Michelle invited Cami to come back in a couple of months to visit their new test kitchen facility!

Over these past few months, I can only imagine that Michelle might have found Cami’s fan-girl hero-worship a bit overwhelming. But Michelle has assured me that she recognizes the important function that a role model can serve for a child. She’s honored and happy to fill this position in Cami’s life at this time and takes her responsibility very seriously.

So a bit of advice to my fellow home educators: Expose your kids to interesting people. Seek out those entrepreneurs who are changing their industry. If your child has a particular interest, find someone in that field to fan their curiosity. While Cami may not be the next great chef, she’ll always remember Michelle’s generosity.


  1. You are an amazing mom! This is such a great lesson—not only for parents who homeschool, but for ALL parents!

  2. Christine, what a wonderful blog post! You commitment to exploring and developing your children's interests is very inspiring! This is such a fun, well-written, moving post. I can imagine what a magical experience this was for Cami. You're a wonderful mother!