a smiling white woman in a red chef jacket
Paige Reinis is a chef with COOK!, a culinary camp program based in Berkeley.

After wrestling with food issues, she now teaches kids healthy cooking

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

Paige Reinis’ first memory in the kitchen is cooking with her Grandma Roz.

“We were making lemon meringue pie,” the now 41-year-old recalls of her 9-year-old self. “I didn’t know about tempering, so it actually became scrambled egg pie. But what I really learned from my grandmother was patience and the love that goes into food.”

More than three decades later, Reinis is passing along those qualities as a chef with COOK!, a culinary camp program based in her native Berkeley that has transitioned from in-person to virtual learning in the age of Covid-19. Long after conquering how to temper eggs and bake lemon meringue pie, she now teaches the art of cooking to youth ages 9 to 18. But part of her recipe for success is also teaching them about the connection between self-care and food — lessons she learned the hard way.

Back in the early ’90s, when she was entering Berkeley High School, Reinis intended to continue her nine-year run playing soccer. Unfortunately, soccer tryouts took place while she was attending High Holiday services at Congregation Beth El. Instead, she accepted (and lost) a bet with the school’s wrestling coach, which is how she ended up as the only female wrestler on the boys’ team. It was a sport that required her to maintain a certain weight, which led to a tumultuous relationship with food that lasted through college.

“I was a lightweight at 5 feet tall and 110 pounds,” Reinis says. “We had to starve ourselves to get to that weight.”

A serious vegetarian since seventh grade, she began a disciplined daily regimen of one slice of pizza, 1 cup of rice and 1 cup of tofu.

“I didn’t understand food or how to feed myself,” she says.

Reinis, who has always been fiercely determined in everything she pursues, was accepted to UC Davis on a wrestling scholarship. She continued college wrestling while also continuing to maintain her weight at the expense of her health, reaching a low of 118 pounds. The athlete became so anemic that she bruised to the touch, bled constantly, and suffered from bronchial and kidney infections. A doctor informed her that her blood type didn’t support a vegetarian diet and told Reinis, “You have to start eating meat.”

two images: one is a plate of latkes with sour cream on top, the other is a salad of orange and red tomato slices
Sweet potato latkes and tomato salad made by Paige Reinis.

Refusing, she picked up where she left off in Grandma Roz’s kitchen and began learning how to cook in earnest, this time with assistance from “Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen,” a gift from her mother, and the nascent internet where she began studying nutrition, food and the trap of deprivation.

“I didn’t want eating to control my life,” she said. “I wanted to enjoy food without the burden of measuring caloric intake.”

At the same time that she was educating herself and adapting new ways of healthy cooking and eating into her life, Reinis also was rediscovering Judaism in a new way. (She celebrated a joint bat mitzvah in 1992 with her twin sister, Danielle.)

“I was diving deep into comparative religion and found an appreciation for the philosophy of mitzvot, of giving back, of helping others,” she explains. “It became my motivation for everything.”

Over time, she channeled that motivation into a new career.

With her college degree in theatrical production, she worked in film and theater for 15 years, a field that gave her the opportunity to travel around the world, but one she later came to realize meant “making other people’s dreams come true.”

She decided it was time to pursue her own dreams and enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. Reinis had a string of gigs before, during and after graduating in 2017 — from working at a kosher barbecue joint in Coney Island to catering Passover seders to working for Kitchensurfing, which booked private chefs to prepare in-home meals.

One evening, a chatty 3-year-old demanded the chef’s attention. With a love of kids that dates back to her counselor days at Berkeley’s Camp Kee Tov and Camp Alonim in Southern California, Reinis scooped up the toddler, and before long had her sprinkling salt and pepper like a seasoned sous chef. It was her aha moment: “I need to work with food and kids.”

Meanwhile, back in Berkeley, Danielle was pregnant and told her sister it was time to return home and be an in-person aunt, backing up her demand by finding her the COOK! position.

“It incorporated everything that I love — working with kids, teaching and giving back,” Reinis says.

A recent week at virtual camp featured “Comfort Foods with a Twist” and included matzah brei topped with onion jam, sweet potato latkes with homemade peach sauce, and challah with, literally, different twists, such as a fishtail braid and a braid in a round that resembles a hair bun.

“It’s not just about a recipe,” Reinis explains. “Because of what I’ve been through — my struggle with weight, anxiety, depression — I knew I could see this in other kids. I now have 20 years of freedom and an understanding of it’s OK, but back then, I wish I had someone like me in my life.”

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.