Cooking class combines cuisine, learning opportunity

Even at 12 years old, Isabelle Szczerbinski has global ambitions. The Richmond native has traveled the world and she speaks five languages, including Mandarin and French. On Sunday, she will lead a cooking class at Williamsburg’s Peter Chang Chinese restaurant in an effort to combine good food with good intentions.

“Once you understand someone, you can understand their culture and where they’re coming from,” Isabelle said. “Then you can work toward world peace.”

The class ties in with her larger goal of overcoming barriers, both linguistic and cultural. Isabelle met Chang when she took a cooking class at the College of William and Mary, where she helped translate some of the material for him. From there, a friendship blossomed.

The cooking class also marks a partnership between Isabelle and the U.S. China Strong Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to strengthen the relationship between the two nations. The foundation, which President Obama helped launch in 2015, invited Isabelle to serve as a youth ambassador.

“It’s about strengthening America’s capacity to understand China and understand a country in a way that you can create pathways to cooperate and ultimately do better things for both countries,” said John Holden, the organization’s CEO, who will attend Sunday.

Holden said he’s excited to showcase a young person so passionate about such a cause.

“She’s a neat kid, and there’s a lot of different dimensions to this,” he said.

The cooking class comes not long after the dawn of the 2018 Chinese New Year, which ushered in the Year of the Dog. Chef Chang and his wife, Lisa, will show attendees how to craft meat and vegetable dumplings, from making the fillings to rolling the dough, along with other dishes. Isabelle will serve as their translator.

Isabelle said she aspires to be a diplomat or translator when she grows up. She hopes the cooking class and its emphasis on multiculturalism might spark a similar passion in others to learn a foreign language or travel to new and exciting places, something she experienced when she first heard spoken Mandarin.

“It was unlike anything I had ever heard before,” she said.

Since then, Isabelle has lobbied Congress in an effort to increase funding for public school language education. She traveled to China, where she addressed a sixth-grade class in Chengdu entirely in Mandarin. In December, she received the People-to-People Award at the Confucius Institute Gala in Washington, D.C., where she gave an acceptance speech on behalf of all the honorees.

Isabelle’s father, Eric, said he could never have imagined how much his daughter would accomplish when he and his wife decided to home-school her. The cooking class with U.S. China Strong is one more reason to be proud of her efforts.

“She does work very hard,” he said. “This is one way she is helping share information on the group and on the importance for kids to learn foreign languages. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Holden said he understands the prospect of exploring an unfamiliar culture, and familiarizing oneself with a new language, in particular, can seem daunting.

“But you build it one step at a time and you can get there. That’s always an important dimension to it,” he said. “These things are possible and they can be fun.”

Want to go?

The cooking class kicks off at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Peter Chang Chinese restaurant, 1203 Richmond Road. Admission is $20; for more information, visit Isabelle’s blog at

Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.

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