When chef Robert Collins was stabbed in the neck while working in Spain as a customs agent for the US Navy in 2007, he made a deal with God.
“I said to God, ‘If you pull me through and get me home in one piece, I’ll do anything.’ He said, ‘I want you to teach children.’ I said are you kidding? I don’t like kids.”
The retired Navy veteran got through, but didn’t quite keep his end of the bargain.
“I wrote a business plan and had a vision, but I went back home and did other things,” Collins said.
This included opening a restaurant and a catering business. But Collins heard the appeal again in 2016.
“He said enough. I want you to do that.”
Chef Robert Collins with some of his students at Youthage Culinary in Mundelein. Chef Robert teaches children from the age of 4 how to cook healthy, balanced meals, as well as knife skills and various cooking techniques.
– Courtesy of Youthage Culinary
So Collins founded Youthage Culinary in Mundelein, a black-owned non-profit organization that provides hands-on training for children of all ages to learn knife handling, various cooking techniques, kitchen safety and leadership skills. And, most importantly for Collins, he teaches her how to prepare balanced meals and why it’s important to eat healthy.
“It’s important to me to educate kids about diabetes, high blood pressure and all of the health challenges our kids have,” said Collins, who became a diabetes advocate in 2014 after losing six family members to the disease in a year.
“These kids are eating flaming hot Cheetos and using the microwave to cook meals. That causes so many problems.”
Collins has worked in the hospitality industry for 29 years, including 20 years in the Navy, where he said he would serve 21,000 recruits a meal at the Great Lakes Naval Station in north Chicago. He takes all of that experience and makes them teach kids what they need to know to be safe in the kitchen.
Courses range from Tiny Chefs for 4-8 years and Junior Chefs for 9-14 years to courses for adults. He even offers private cooking classes and parties.
In the courses, children learn sautéing, baking, roasting and other cooking techniques; tips for serving food; 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 don’t text, they can’t communicate. We teach them to be a voice. I choose a captain when we put meals together. I usually choose the introvert as my leader because it inspires them and shows them they can do it.”
Guest chefs come by voluntarily to teach the children various techniques. A cake decorator recently came in to teach piping.
“The kids are having a lot of fun. We have pie wars and pie wars. It shows them they can be creative in the kitchen,” Collins said.
But it’s not just about preparing food. 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 children visit butcher markets. They also visit gardens where they learn the difference between a root and a plant and how to flavor their food with herbs to avoid excess salt.
Collins also takes his message to schools in and around Lake County and to summer camps. He works with non-profit organizations and the College of Lake County, and also catering with the children for local churches and other events.
“Anywhere there are kids, we try to be,” he said. “I am very concerned about the health and well-being of our children. Nobody came to my school to talk about diabetes and high blood pressure.”
Tiny Chef courses are $25, Junior Chef courses are $35, with a 4-pack available for $125. This donation includes a hair net, apron, supplies and food. Usually there is also food for the parents to try.
Youthage Culinary in Mundelein teaches children and adults how to cook healthy and balanced meals. There are a variety of programs to choose from, including private tuition.
– Courtesy of Youthage Culinary
But it’s not just the kids that Collins is trying to reach. It’s never too late for adults to change their eating habits. Chef Collins attends to medical issues and participants learn to support themselves through food.
Adult classes are $40.
Youthage also offers a corporate leadership training program to bring teams of employees together so they learn to work together. Managers become subordinates and must obey the orders of employees. Kind of a role reversal.
All of these different programs help keep Youthage Culinary open. The non-profit organization 501c3 is always looking for more volunteers to help set up and dismantle courses and events and collect donations. It also needs volunteer chefs to come and teach the kids their specialty, be it a technique or a recipe.
And Chef Collins emphasizes that Youthage Culinary is in desperate need of sponsors. He is looking for a grantee to help him find more money.
“We’ve been here for six years and we’re trying to get ourselves known and established as a brand, but it’s been difficult. When we first opened our doors, we didn’t qualify for grants and companies had criteria we didn’t meet,” he said.
For now, Collins said he’s using his retirement fund to keep the doors open, so any help he can get on this worthwhile mission would be appreciated.
More than anything, Collins wants families to get back to the basics of good, healthy living.
“Sitting at the dining table or cooking together in the kitchen — learning to cook properly — that’s a piece that’s missing these days,” Collins said.
“I would love for people to come out and try us. You will not regret it.”
• • •
What: A black-owned nonprofit that teaches children of all ages and abilities how to cook healthy food using a variety of techniques.
Where: 508 N. Seymour Ave., Mundelein
Cost: A $25 donation to Tiny Chef courses; $35 for Junior Chef courses, with a 4-course package available for $125; $40 for adult courses.
Details: Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (847) 865-1010.
Help needed: Youthage Culinary is looking for local chefs to volunteer. The nonprofit organization is also looking for a grant writer to volunteer or hire. Contact Executive Chef Robert Collins for more information.