The girls loved sushi, but only one had tried making it at home. A couple seemed itchy with excitement. Nikki McGowan and her business partner Melissa Parlette wheeled in two oversized coolers, unpacked a bag of kid-size white aprons, plastic knives and cutting boards, a pot of sticky sushi rice – and a few surprises.playing food1

McGowan introduced herself to the eight middle schoolers, assembled by

Her Mind magazine at the Fretz Kitchen Showroom in Columbia for a cooking class. “Who likes sushi?” she asked. There were no dissenters.

Each of the girls donned an apron, laid a sushi-rolling mat on her cutting board and got to work. They placed a sheet of dried seaweed – or nori – on the mat, patted down rice and arranged filling – cucumbers, scallions, avocados and seafood sticks. There was also smoked salmon and cream cheese.

After each girl had made a roll or two, assisted by McGowan and Parlette, who patiently provided instruction and tips, there was a treat. Dessert sushi, made with marshmallowy Rice Krispies treat goo, spread on fruit leather with dried fruit rolled into the center. Chocolate sauce masqueraded as soy sauce for dipping.

Did the girls enjoy the class, I wondered? A unanimous response: “Awesome.”

playing food2Cooking classes for kids – like the one she staged at Fretz – are just one part of McGowan’s Ellicott City-based business, recently incorporated as CKCS Foods (which stands for Cannelloni Kids Cooking School).

It began with a kid who was a picky eater. McGowan decided to encourage her son, then a toddler, to get involved in food planning and preparation. “I realized when he was young, if I included him in the process of cooking, he’d try more things.”

McGowan, who has a degree in psychology, but has worked in restaurants since she put herself through college at Towson University, began to wonder if what worked in her own family might be marketable to others. “I wondered how I could turn it into a business.”

She approached the St. John’s Parish School, near her home in Ellicott City, and offered to teach after-school cooking workshops. The classes, launched in 2008, offered one day a week for groups from the preschool and middle school, were soon wildly popular. “We’d have a four-week theme,” says McGowan. “It would be barbecue, or Italian, or cookies.” McGowan would set up a makeshift kitchen with portable burners on cafeteria tables, pass out plastic knives and cutting boards, introduce the children to such equipment as pasta machines and torches to burn the crust on crème brulée. “I don’t like to talk down to the kids,” she insists. “They like to use the equipment techniques that grown-ups would use.”

On her trips to the school, McGowan began to notice that the cafeteria food left something to be desired. The lunches were delivered each day “and someone would basically babysit the food and keep it warm,” McGowan says. “I thought, I can do better than that.” She approached her contact at the school, Melissa Parlette, and proposed the idea of providing nutritious lunches made from fresh foods. Not only did Parlette, then an administrator in charge of auxiliary programs at the school, love the idea, recalls McGowan, “she said, ‘whatever you do, I want in.'”

Now, five years since that first cooking class – and more than 5,000 kids later – McGowan and Parlette are partners in a small and very busy food service company with one other full-time employee and a host of part-timers. Cannelloni Kids continues to operate the lunch program at St. John’s school, offers after-school classesplaying food3 and summer camp programs through Howard County Recreation & Parks, caters corporate luncheons and events, volunteers once a month doing demonstrations for children at the Johns Hopkins Childrens’ Center and has a busy weekend schedule staging birthday parties (most involving cooking classes) for kids and adults.

“She’ll do anything,” says Amy Brown, a Towson mother of three who has hired McGowan to put on four kids’ parties and cater for an adult luau as well as her mother’s 60th birthday party – with a 1950s poodle skirt and drive-in restaurant theme. “Nikki’s cooking was amazing,” says Brown. “She didn’t just do fries, they were truffle fries.” McGowan also provided the bartender and left the kitchen spotless. “At this point, she knows her way around my kitchen,” Brown says.

Getting to know McGowan, says another client Jeanene Motsco, has changed her daughters’ attitudes about food and cooking. “Since they met Nikki,” says Motsco, whose daughters are now 9 and 13, “they love cooking and being part of the kitchen.”

About five years ago, Motsco, a resident of Elkridge who, with her husband operates Insurance Pickle, an online insurance agency, signed her daughters up for a cookie baking class through Parks & Rec. The class was taught by McGowan and her friend Rich Karroll, a regular on the Food Network’s Ace of Cakes. Soon after, Motsco hired her for her daughter’s birthday party, an Italian feast that included handmade pasta noodles and tomato sauce. McGowan even provided tableware and linens. “It looked like a little Italian restaurant,” Motsco recalls. The girls also decorated cupcakes for dessert, and each took home an apron that she had embellished with fabric markers. “I ask her all the time how she does it,” says Motsco. “She has three children, but she just doesn’t stop.”

Canneloni Kids recently purchased a building in Eldersburg for a catering kitchen and studio for classes. It’s painted the bright lime green that has become the company’s signature color and was slated to open in March (though McGowan predicted that there might be delays). CKCS has also recently launched a meal delivery service for expectant and new mothers called “Stork with a Fork” and the apt slogan “You Deliver. We Deliver.” Meantime, sign-ups are underway for the summer cooking camps – mostly for kids in grades k-5, with one session for 11- to 14-year-olds – held at four Howard County high schools. The session for older kids, called the Chopping Block, says McGowan, is run like a “Top Chef”-style competition.

McGowan’s philosophy about sharing her love of food is not just about cooking and eating. “We learn about different cultures and talk about food traditions,” she says. “We learn about etiquette and why it’s important for people to sit down and eat together.”

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