This week our team announced a major achievement in Chef Koochooloo’s development as a program that teaches kids the power of collaboration, STEAM skills, and cultural diversity by cooking healthy recipes. The National Science Foundation (NSF) selected us for a $750,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant, which will be used to support additional research and content expansions for our innovative, gamified smart-device application.

Our program is currently used in K-8 classrooms and offers kids the chance to select and cook recipes from over 200 countries in the world. During a typical class, students follow the app’s instructions and work together to measure, prepare, and cook the ingredients.

The entire process takes about an hour, and each lesson is infused with math and science concepts as they relate to preparing the meal. Plus, as the students proceed with the recipe, they simultaneously learn about the recipe’s culture of origin and work on their social interaction skills.

One of the most gratifying outcomes from these classes is watching vegetables go from “yuck” to “yum” for the students. In fact, many of their parents beg us for the recipes because their kids are asking to cook the same dishes at home!

It has been heartwarming to see kids not only eat their veggies but also become passionate about math, science, and other cultures and cuisines. We’ve been thrilled to watch our students learn and grow, and Chef Koochooloo has truly been a labor of love for me and so many others over the last 4 years.


Proving Chef Koochooloo’s Merit to the NSF


Our recent award is part of the SBIR’s Phase II funding, and qualifying for approval with the NSF is a highly rigorous process. First, we had to secure a Phase I grant of $225,000 to conduct thorough research and analysis about the efficacy of our program, which took over a year to complete. Throughout the school year, we executed 10 Chef Koocholoo lessons in classrooms at 11 different schools in kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade. We gathered data from pre and post assessments, interviews, and surveys among children, teachers, and parents, and were able to prove that our program holds incredible promise in academic and socio-emotional learning in elementary schools.

Next, we had to compile our findings into a proposal and then submit our application to an NSF review panel. These panels are comprised of half a dozen college faculty members and business leaders who assess up to 125 grant applications at a time, with multiple rounds of evaluation occurring annually.

During their reviews, the expert panel considers each proposal based on its intellectual merit, predicted social and cultural impacts, and how well the research and educational potentials are integrated. Only the highest scoring applications are sent from the committee to the relevant NSF Division Director for a final decision on who will earn an award.

When we received notice that we had been selected, we were beyond thrilled. Throughout our development, we’ve had one simple goal with Chef Koochooloo:

  • Teach kids the value of social cooperation and cultural literacy while showing them how to cook and enjoy healthy, nutritious foods and improve their STEAM skills.

Having such a prestigious institution recognize the merits of our work has been incredibly rewarding—it’s also reaffirmed our belief that Chef Koochooloo has so much to give to children, their families, and communities.


From left to right: Agnes Charrel-Berthillier, Layla Sabourian, Theresa Lambert, and Dr. Ayindé Rudolph

Chef Koochooloo and the Whole Child Approach


Our mission has been built on the advice of a number of forward-thinking educators. Dr. Ayindé Rudolph, the Superintendent of Mountain View’s Whisman School District met with us in our early days to see if our idea of teaching STEAM skills via healthy cooking even made sense from an academic point of view.


His words gave me the confidence I needed: “It takes a whole village to raise a child, but it takes a whole child to raise a village.”


Dr. Rudolph’s insight is reflected in the whole child approach to education. The idea is that for children to flourish, they need more than academic instruction. Kids also need to be healthy, safe, and engaged, and they need their schools and communities to support and challenge them.

Research has shown that children who receive this kind of nurturing and encouragement are better able to cope with challenges. These kids are also more likely to develop into well-rounded, socially responsible citizens who give back to society.

And that desire to instill a strong appreciation for healthy foods and cultural diversity for the benefit of a child’s entire welfare, not just his or her academic skills, has been part of Chef Koochooloo since our very first cooking experiment.


The Beginnings of a Delicious Idea: Chef Koochooloo’s Origins


The initial concept for Chef Koochooloo sparked in 2014 when Gabriella Mistral Elementary School Mariano Castro Elementary School in Mountain View, California began preparing for their annual walk-a-thon fundraiser. The planning group asked me to join, and I was more than happy to accept. One of the parents requested that I oversee selling the food items for the event. Excited, I agreed and offered to make some Iranian stuffed grape leaves or Peruvian bean pies as they would make great finger foods.

The parent gave me a funny look, laughed, and said, “No I meant things that kids actually eat—like brownies, chips, and hotdogs.”

“Oh,” I responded, feeling disappointed. But I also began to better understand what my daughter was complaining about being teased at school. The kids constantly made fun of her for bringing healthy, homemade ethnic dishes for lunch.

Still, I believed that the kids would absolutely love healthier food options if given the chance. Another parent, Agnes Charrel-Berthillier, stood up for my idea, “I am certain we can convince kids to eat healthier international options, and it will be good for them to discover food from other cultures.”

Sensing I had a great opportunity, I reiterated my proposal and suggested that I involve the students in preparing the dishes. I also recruited several teachers to allow the cooking in their classrooms.

We made 17 Argentinian quince tarts, using fresh quinces gathered from my aunt’s house and a selection of healthier ingredients to keep the desserts as low in sugar and butter as possible. The results were delicious, and we had an amazing sale at the walk-a-thon that year.


The Idea Begins to Grow: Chef Koochooloo Expands in Mountain View, California


After the fundraiser, Agnes helped me turn our healthy-eating demonstration into an enrichment cooking class at our schools. The principal of both schools at that time, Theresa Lambert, supported the idea, and Chef Koochooloo was born.

Word began to spread to other Bay Area schools about our activities, and parents across the district started requesting that I bring the program to their children. Demand for the cooking classes grew so much that I left a marketing career in the high-tech world to dedicate myself fully to Chef Koochooloo.

By that point, I realized that if I wanted to scale the model, I had to clone myself, train new instructors, or create a standard way to teach the recipes. Upon considering the obvious scientific limitations of cloning and the more pressing financial practicalities related to training, I decided to go the technological route.

I recruited a colleague of mine from SAP, Milos Macura, to help code and design our first prototype for the smart-device app. Meanwhile, several talented artists and developers, including Niaz Zia, Cindy Ramirez, and the WDF agency in Prague, volunteered to help us design and create a beautiful IndieGoGo campaign and our first prototype.

While this small group of volunteers worked to get Chef Koochooloo off the ground, my husband and I ended up unexpectedly fostering a child the same week that the IndieGoGo campaign went live. (Talk about a busy couple of months!) But, thanks to my village, the campaign was a huge success, and our baby girl simply brought me more luck in the process.


An Idea Put into Practice: Chef Koochooloo’s Funding and Future Growth


I came to know Linda Parker Pennington, who suggested I apply for Tech Futures Group’s advisory services. The group provided us with several critical resources to grow our program, and thanks to the guidance of Charles Eason and Gerry Baranano, we discovered SBIR grants.

In 2017, we received approval for our Phase I SBIR award and used the money to develop our application for Chromebooks. That idea had been suggested by Principal Geoffrey Change of Huff Elementary School, who was acting as a mentor for me during this process.

By the end of Phase I, we successfully demonstrated the program’s efficacy in linking STEAM competencies with nutrition, human geography, and the English language. We had also improved the application’s performance and expanded our selection of content. The work conducted during Phase I became the basis of our Phase II application, and the Phase II proposal will be the basis for our expansion in the coming years.

In particular, our Phase II funding will support the application and program’s continued development, further research, additional content expansions, and an increase in staff members and interns. We will be looking to form relationships with new research institutions, chefs, food-service providers, and textbook makers, and I’m pleased to say that Chef Koochooloo is set to go international in summer 2019 when we participate in startup accelerators in France and Switzerland.

I can’t wait to see what the next several years bring as Chef Koochooloo expands beyond Silicon Valley into other schools in the United States and across the world. We know that children can succeed if we give them the tools they need to grow and learn, and I’m going to be working very hard to ensure this fun, valuable educational program makes it into the hands of as many kids as possible.


Chef Koochooloo’s Village and Its Ongoing Support


So many people have donated their time, expertise, and skills toward turning the idea of Chef Koochooloo into a reality. I’m especially thankful for the educators believing in my idea and helping me navigate the next steps.

I also want to express appreciation to Principals Theresa Lambert, Tabitha Miller, Nick Prychodko, and Steven Kaufman (Cupertino School District); Sarah Tellez (Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment at Sunnyvale School District); and the teachers at Gabriella Mistral, Mariano Castro, and De Vargas Elementary School. This outstanding group has continued to support and mentor us as we’ve begun designing our curriculum to be more culturally diverse and STEAM-focused.

In addition, I’m grateful to PTA representatives Sara Kopit-Olson and Tania O’Connell, they have expressed their interest and provided support to help us optimize the Chef Koochooloo program to consider the needs of the US Latino community, which suffers from the highest rates of attrition in STEM and childhood obesity.

Our advisors, David Maclean, Parham Akhavan, Dr. Michael Brenner, and Dr. Richard Zare deserve our thanks as well; their input and experience helped us prepare our Phase II proposal. I’m also thankful for the NSF’s program managers Glen Larsen and Dr. Rajesh Mehta, who guided us through the application process.

Chef Koochooloo would not have achieved its current success without this wonderful village’s support, and I like to imagine they’re all as proud as I am about what their contributions have enabled us to do up till now and as we continue on in the future.