Chef Eliza Martin
Chef Eliza Martin may be best known for being a ‘Chopped’ champion on the Food Network but you only have to see her in action teaching cooking classes at VIDA Middle School to see where her real passion lies.
Alternating between instructing students and answering their questions as they whip up recipes, Martin is in her element thanks to her high energy and obvious sense of fun in the teaching environment.
On the day of this story’s visit, sixteen students were creating Indian-inspired fare. Blenders were whizzing as some children mixed up mango lassis, while others flipped homemade naan bread on hotplates as the chef encouraged them. The class recipes have also included wonton soup, alfredo noodles, and sushi.
“I really try to fit a lot of different cultures into our cooking to pay honor to different kids in the class,” she explains. “And I love child-led learning. If someone requests a recipe and I can do it, we do it. It makes students more engaged and empowered.”
Martin spent more than a decade honing her cheffing skills across America in various international cuisines before her turn in the TV spotlight and subsequent pivot to teaching.
Her cooking journey began while studying at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, where she also worked on the Rachael Ray Show.
After moving to Chicago, she won a James Beard Foundation scholarship and became their first Woman in Culinary Leadership recipient. Food Network asked the Foundation if any women would be interested in participating in their ‘Chopped’ show because they had so few female chefs. Martin was chosen – and won!
Her culinary journey continued after she moved to San Francisco to work as the Executive Chef at a fine-dining Italian restaurant. She began teaching children and adults cooking classes out of the restaurant alongside cheffing and soon realized her desire to transition to teaching full time.
“There are enough chefs to go around but there aren’t enough educators in the food scene,” she says. “I’m not trying to make anyone a Gordon Ramsey. I just want these kids to be able to cook for themselves and their families. Many students don’t have access to this kind of education, so for us to be able to do it in small increments will hopefully evolve into building blocks for something special.”
So how did Martin end up in Vista? “When Covid hit my husband and I wanted to find a really awesome spot to live in, and this is where we landed,” she laughs. She soon began winning grants to teach in local schools.
In addition to VIDA, Chef Eliza is also teaching in Vista Unified at Alta Vista and Major General Murray High School as well as at Mira Costa College; Chef Eliza will be back at those schools in the spring of 2024.
Zoey, 12, is hoping she wins a lottery place for the spring session. “I enjoyed making the mini pumpkin pies with the frosting,” she smiles. “I like the sweet things! Chef Eliza shows you how to do everything. She doesn’t just tell you, she lets you do it and she doesn’t micromanage. You get to measure everything, and cook it and flip it.”
Fellow student Sophia, 12, says the class has inspired her to start cooking the recipes for her family. “Chef Eliza is so kind. She helps us go through everything step by step so it’s very simple. And I love how she teaches us techniques like how to cut things.”
As for the future, Martin has big ambitions of starting her own foundation due to the burgeoning demand for her classes. “I’m a team of one right now and I run as many school programs as I can,” she explains. “But I want to get more educators involved so we can serve the schools.
“We eat six times a day and I think teaching cooking should be just as important as teaching arithmetic in school. Kids should be able to feed themselves and make healthy choices. But until they get food in their hands, how are they going to know where it comes from? How it arrived on their plate and became so beautiful?”
So as Martin continues her mission to teach cooking not just for fun but as a life skill, children in the Vista school district are all the more healthy - and happy - for it.