For Roberts that was a no-brainer. Inspired by her Easy Bake Oven, she marked that cooking was play. Her kindergarten teacher, possibly embittered by years of bad cooking experiences, marked that answer wrong.
But to the benefit of local home chefs, the Palo Alto resident didn't let that discourage her. Now she teaches cooking tricks, tips and techniques in classes such as "Sensational Summer Desserts" and "Mediterranean by the Sea" through Palo Alto Adult School.
This month, Roberts, now 45, will teach students how to use seasonal ingredients to spice up summer picnics in her new class, "Picnic in the Park." Students will learn how to make dishes such as "Marinated Zucchini," "Baguette Sandwich with Roasted Eggplant" and "Spicy Chicken Noodles."
Driven by her life-long love of cooking, Roberts has taken more than 100 cooking classes, including one at Le Cordon Bleu in France and several classes with Bay Area chocolatiers. But three years ago, Roberts decided to supplement her software career by taking her cooking to a higher level.
"I wanted to take my hobby, which was cooking, and turn it into more of a profession," she said.
So now Roberts teaches a wide variety of cooking classes — all of which emphasize her personal philosophy that cooking should always be play.
"I want everybody to come away from my classes with the feeling that cooking isn't a chore," Roberts said. "It can be fun! They're here to have fun, so I try to make it fun."
Adding to the fun of "Picnic in the Park" is Roberts' recipe for "Ooey Gooey Brownies." To pick the best brownie recipe for the class, Roberts tried more than 30 different recipes before she finally settled on one to teach her students.
She also plans to share a recipe for homemade pesto, a spread that Roberts believes is much easier to make at home than most people think.
"I want to take the mystique out of pesto," she said.
Roberts chose all of her "Picnic in the Park" recipes for their fresh, seasonal ingredients and surprising flavors.
"In the class, what I'm teaching is a picnic that you can take anywhere," she said. "You don't have to worry about refrigeration; you can just put it in a picnic basket and go!"
Students in Roberts' cooking classes get hands-on help and advice that they can't get from a recipe book or TV show. Roberts makes sure that her students spend their time in class cooking their own dishes, rather than just watching someone else cook.
"I find that if you just watch a demonstration, it sounds interesting, but then you walk home and you can't replicate it," Roberts said.
Students also get to taste-test different ingredients — perhaps different kinds of olive oil, rice or salt. One lucky class even got to taste-test 15 varieties of chocolate. "Picnic in the Park" students will sample and discuss different varieties of eggplant, including Chinese and Japanese.
These taste-testings reflect Roberts' emphasis on fresh, seasonal and high-quality ingredients. She hopes that students leave her classes with an appreciation of the huge difference that even minor ingredients can make in the final meal.
"A recipe is only as good as what you put in it," Roberts said.
With that perspective, Roberts likes to experiment with unusual ingredients such as galangal, an Asian plant that is similar to ginger. Roberts' husband is Malaysian, so Asian foods and ingredients often make an appearance in her cooking. This year, she's also teaching a Malaysian cooking class for the first time that features a tasting of many different kinds of rice.
Roberts takes sharing her passion for culinary arts very seriously. She says that cooking classes often attract an older demographic of students, but she hopes to encourage people of all generations to fall in love with cooking.
"The question I always ponder is: How can we inspire younger adults to cook and learn about cooking?" Roberts said. "I just don't want cooking to be a dying art."
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What: Picnic in the Park
When: Monday, June 9, 6:30 to 9 p.m.
Where: Palo Alto High School, Room 103, 50 Embarcadero Road, Palo Alto
Info: Visit www.paadultschool.org or call 650-329-3752.
Spicy Chicken Noodles
Prep time: 30 minutes
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast
12 oz. spaghetti noodles
2 t. sesame oil
1/2 C. tahini (sesame paste) (or peanut butter)
6 T. water
2 T. hot chili oil
6 T. soy sauce
4 T. red wine vinegar
2 T. sesame oil
1/2 C. peanut oil
4 T. minced garlic (about six cloves)
1/4 C. cilantro leaves
Small food processor
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place chicken in a baking dish. Cook in the oven until cooked through, about 20 minutes for very thinly sliced chicken, 40 minutes for thicker. Let cool. When cool, shred chicken into small strips.
While chicken is cooking, bring a large pot of water with 1 t. of salt to a boil. Cook the noodles until al dente, about seven minutes. Drain the noodles and rinse to cool. Toss with 2 t. of sesame oil.
Smash garlic with the side of a chef's knife and remove skins. Mince garlic in the food processor. Chop cilantro and scallions.
Mix together garlic, water, vinegar, soy sauce and remaining oils until thoroughly blended.
Toss together chicken, tahini mixture, noodles, cilantro and scallions. Serve at room temperature.
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