Although she’s just barely old enough to get a learner’s permit, 16-year-old Amber Kelley has already connected with cooks of all ages—and on screens of all sizes. The winner of the “Food Network Star Kids” competition has been featured on the Today show and numerous other TV spots. Former First Lady Michelle Obama even dined with her at the White House.
Kelley started making and posting cooking videos six years ago and continues to influence young cooks both through her popular YouTube channel and her recently published cookbook, Cook with Amber: Fun, Fresh Recipes to Get You in the Kitchen. We caught up with Amber to get her advice on introducing young cooks to the kitchen.
How did you get into cooking?
I started helping my mom in the kitchen at a very young age. She didn’t force me into the kitchen, but invited me in there and got me involved. She’d have me do little jobs, like dumping flour into a bowl and mushing stuff together with my hands—super basic stuff that made me feel like I was helping and making an impact. And we watched a lot of Food Network together, so we bonded over that.
Why did you start making cooking videos?
My mom always packed us fresh, wholesome meals for lunch, but in second grade I started getting bullied for the type of food I was bringing to school. I started making videos to prove a point: to show that fresh, wholesome food can be delicious. And making the videos helped me fall even more in love with cooking.
What do you consider to be “healthy” food?
Healthy food doesn’t have to be a plate of celery and broccoli. It can be something super-delicious that just happens to be good for you, made with really good, quality ingredients. I don’t think “healthy” is even the best word. I prefer to call them “wholesome, fresh, delicious foods.”
What advice do you give young cooks?
Start small. If you go into the kitchen wanting to make things that chefs are making on TV, you’re going to get discouraged real quick. And you don’t want to deflate your ego. Cooking is not as easy as it looks on TV. Start with something basic that you’re excited to eat. When I started cooking entire dishes, I would make really simple things, like these banana and peanut butter sandwiches with chocolate drizzled on top that I’d freeze.
What advice do you give parents of young cooks?
First, just get your kids interested in food. I got interested in cooking because I love to eat. Ask your kids what they want to eat. They might surprise you with their answers.
Also, you don’t have to hand your kid a giant chef’s knife right away. Parents need to get used to having their kids in the kitchen, around all these new tools. Teach them how to use equipment safely. My mom and dad were terrified at first when I started using a knife, but they let me practice until we both grew some confidence.
Who are your food heroes?
Rachael Ray and Jamie Oliver were two of my food icons when I was younger. I had all of Jamie’s cookbooks and watched Rachael Ray all the time. I used to sit at my dining room table with Play-Doh and pretend to be Rachael Ray on TV. She’s one of the reasons I wanted to be a food personality. And I’ve been lucky enough meet her. I competed on “Rachael vs. Guy: Kids Cook-Off” when I was 13 years old. That was surreal. Having your idol give you compliments and advice was mind-blowing.
What has been your biggest goof in the kitchen?
I’ve added too much salt or overcooked something lots of times, but everyone does that. My most epic fail was a recipe that called for ⅓ cup of flour, but I was tired or too young to read and added 13 cups of flour instead. I’m not good at baking. Precise measurements stress me out.
Why did you write a cookbook?
I’m a regular teenage girl and know what other kids and teens like to eat and cook. A lot of younger kids aren’t introduced to cooking early enough. And I want to teach them how to cook things that will help them feel healthy and confident.
Are you planning on a career in food?
Food has been a passion and hobby of mine for a very long time, but I have no idea whether or not I’m going to turn it into a career. I am a sophomore in high school, so I have time to figure it out. I’m just trying to live in the moment and share my recipes with as many people as I can right now.