A chef and a crowd of kids cluster around a hot skillet of batter, its aroma wafting through the community kitchen at Southern Oregon University's family housing complex. The kids wear adult-sized burgundy aprons that, for most of them, reach their ankles. A plate of freshly cut berries stands on the opposite counter, next to a bowl full of hand-whipped cream.

This is the Kids in the Kitchen Institute, one of the university's Summer Better Than Others pre-college youth programs. This morning the kids are learning how to make crepes for breakfast, using the ingredients they bought on their trip to the Ashland Growers and Crafters Market the day before. Everyone gets to make, and promptly eat, his or her own crepe. A couple of the girls volunteer to wash dishes in the corner sink. Local culinary educator Marilyn Moore supervises to make sure the kids wash their hands and don't burn themselves.

“I get my 10,000 steps in every day,” she says. “Believe me.”

SOU offers more than 50 programs throughout the summer, ranging from building Lego robots to rock climbing at Emigrant Lake to making animated stop-motion films with clay figures. Stephanie Butler, SOU's youth programs coordinator, says the goal is to offer fun experiences for young people that get them excited about going to college.

At Kids in the Kitchen, participants each day learn several recipes that they take home in a booklet at the end of the week and use them to cook meals for their families.

Moore, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu and former instructor at Rogue Community College, has been leading this program for at least 12 years. When she lists off the recipes that the kids are cooking over the week, her hands move in gestures not unlike an orchestra conductor preparing to direct a symphony.

They cooked broccoli macaroni and cheese Tuesday and learned how to make kale, beet and yam chips, Moore says, emphasizing that the last three items were baked, not fried. Earlier in the week, the kids made their own pizzas with fresh homemade dough, zucchini fritters, beet salad and gluten-free peanut butter cookies.

She asks her charges often, "Are we having a good time?" 

"Yes!" all the kids yell back.

"It's cool that you get to go home and cook for your family," says Zoe Andresen, 8. She adds, though, that getting to cook and eat the food in class is her favorite part.

This year, the program received a $1,000 grant from the Oregon Community Foundation's Skyrman Techno Fund. The grant helped Moore and Butler buy new equipment such as knives and cutting boards. Butler says that helped move the program from a demonstration to a more hands-on operation. 

A complete at-a-glance list of programs, times and registration fees is available on the SOU website. To register or get information about tuition assistance, call 541-552-6452.

Reach Mail Tribune reporting intern Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@mailtribune.com.