Sticky Notes - Unleashing Culinary Magic: An Interview with Chef Dylan Sabuco on Crafting Extraordinary Recipes
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Unleashing Culinary Magic: An Interview with Chef Dylan Sabuco on Crafting Extraordinary Recipes

July 12, 2023 by Emily Moore

How Do You Come Up with All These Awesome Recipes?

Last week I caught up with our much loved Sticky Fingers Cooking chef-instructor Dylan Sabuco just after he wrapped up a day of teaching kids at Denver’s “Dream Big Day Camp.” He and SFC founder Erin Fletter are the creative duo behind SFC recipe development at Sticky Fingers Cooking. I asked Dylan to spill the beans about their recipe creation process! 

[Following is a condensed version of the full interview, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.]

How do you come up with all those awesome recipes? Erin says you’re amazing at it! What’s your process? 

Well, that is very kind of her to say! It’s actually very much a back-and-forth process. Erin and I start by delving into our favorite cookbooks, websites, and YouTube videos. We spend hours chit-chatting and talking about food and recipes. In the process, we uncover around 50 recipes that catch our attention and that we want to turn into SFC recipes. Erin comes up with the wild titles and makes everything super kid friendly. 

As for the development process, that’s where I come in. I take on the research and development, asking myself, “Can our students cook this together in our classes in under one hour?” I put it to the test by setting a timer and attempting to complete the recipe myself. Once I’ve sorted the timing, Erin and I reconvene to create the lineup, matching titles with holidays like lent + fish-less fish fry. Everything gets matched up in its unique way. From there, I start writing. I like to cook the recipe again, taking meticulous notes and including helpful tips and pointers. Then I put all that information into a template, and Erin adds her chef wisdom. Finally, a team of folks handles the editing and proofing to ensure the writing is clear and concise. 

That’s the usual process, but sometimes we mix things up and work in reverse! Erin might throw a curveball like, “Hey, could we make lasagna out of wonton wrappers?” So, we try it and see if we like the result! It makes me feel like a kid again, starting with a blank canvas, tossing everything at the wall, and seeing what sticks. Then we go back and fill in any gaps, ensuring every recipe is a winner.

What’s the most challenging part about that process?

With so many possibilities floating around, sometimes it’s hard to keep track of everything! Sometimes Erin will come up with a zany title, and I’ll jot it down. But weeks later, I’ll look at my notes and realize I have no clue what that recipe was meant to be! [laughs] It’s all part of the fun and excitement, though. We love exploring new ideas and pushing the boundaries of creativity.

Have you learned anything from that process?

Erin pushes me to think outside the box when it comes to recipe creation. My own culinary experiences are deeply rooted in my Italian heritage. My grandparents were from Sicily, so I grew up with jars of roasted red peppers, whole chickens, lasagna. I love those foods, but I’d still be making those and only those if Erin hadn’t pushed me to explore new culinary terrain. For example, I’ve been making this Lebanese cake called Namoura with my summer camp kids all week. I had never even heard of Namoura, let alone considered writing a recipe for it. But Erin’s creative vision pushes me way out of my comfort zone, and I’m grateful for it. I’m a firm believer in lifelong learning, and with Erin’s global perspective, I’m constantly expanding my horizons. 

What’s your strategy for creating recipes that children find appealing and enjoyable?

It’s all about easing them into new flavors and experiences. One approach we take is to introduce something sweet on the first of every month. When I started this job eight years ago, I never thought kids would enjoy some savory dishes like ratatouille or mushroom ragu, but they do; we build up to them and gradually build their palates.

Also, we never talk down to kids; instead, we empower them. We firmly believe that kids become more receptive if they explore and interact with the ingredients. I’ve witnessed the magic of this approach firsthand. Just today, I introduced Semolina Namoura Yogurt Cake to 80 children who were previously unfamiliar with it. Their excitement grew through cooking it and experiencing each step of the process; by the end, not a single serving remained uneaten. Seeing kids’ openness to new flavors and enthusiasm for trying something new is incredible.

What else are you thinking about when you create recipes?

Maintaining a harmonious balance between fun, engaging recipes, and promoting nutritious eating habits is always at the forefront of my mind. I’m also conscious of the budget – can people actually afford the ingredients we’re using? That’s important to us. To keep things fun and engaging, I like to create sensory experiences. Drawing on my background in teaching art to preschoolers, I understand the value of hands-on learning. Our lesson plans are designed to encourage kids to engage their senses by incorporating elements of touch, smell, and feel. For instance, during today’s session, we blended orange peels. We did this because orange peels have a strong, appealing fragrance. We spent the next five minutes sharing fun stories about what the scent reminded us of. These sensory experiences make the cooking process more immersive and enjoyable while promoting healthy eating habits and nutrition. 

What are some of Sticky Fingers Cooking’s most popular recipes with children? Or ones that have had memorable reactions from kids?

We’ve had some incredible recipes that have become instant favorites among children. One recipe that really took off was our Purple Polish Savory Cabbage Pierogi. Many parents emailed us asking for the recipe; their kids couldn’t get enough of them!

Our Sweetly Charred Scallion Asian Ramen Noodles with Nori Crunch recipe also became a real hit with kids (my own nephews asked for it over and again and again!). There’s just something about the bold flavors and fresh ingredients in this dish that captured their taste buds and left a lasting impression. 

And, of course, we can’t forget the famous Spanish Empanada de Manzana (Apple Pie) – it’s an all-time favorite. 

There are many others, too, that have not only delighted the kids but also sparked their curiosity about different cuisines and ingredients. It’s fun to see!

Erin says you have a gift for teaching and that kids in Sticky Fingers Cooking's cooking classes LOVE learning from you! Do you think they keep up their skills after class?

We often hear from parents that they do. It’s gratifying to hear how happy parents are that their kids are learning to cook. That’s the feedback that makes me the happiest. We also hear from parents that their kids are requesting to go to the store with them and pick out fresh veggies and other ingredients. Knowing that we’re positively impacting families and helping children develop valuable culinary skills is very satisfying.

What have you learned in the process of collaborating with Erin on recipes?

I was fresh out of the restaurant and culinary world when I started this job. I was strict, almost militaristic, about cooking. I had a precise vision of how things should be done. But collaborating with Erin has taught me to become more relaxed and flexible in the kitchen. I’ve rediscovered the joy of cooking, taking moments to stop and smell the roses. I’ve found my spark and sparkle again!

Did you like to cook as a kid? What were some of your favorite foods or recipes?

I developed a love for cooking at a young age. I cooked with my mom. I can vividly recall one of my first recipes: deviled eggs. My mother would have me measure out all the ingredients, and I would proudly prepare them for all the holiday parties. 

But what sparked my passion for cooking was in the sixth grade when I baked cookies. I brought them to a family gathering and hand-delivered them to see the joy on their faces. I really like it when people like my food! It’s always been a driving force for me. To this day, I find immense pleasure in cooking for myself and others. I’m not always hungry for the food, but I’m always hungry for the reaction.  

What can we expect from Sticky Fingers Cooking’s 2023 fall recipe lineup? 

Get ready for an exciting fall lineup from Sticky Fingers Cooking! We’re pushing the boundaries and exploring new culinary horizons with innovative ideas. Some highlights to look forward to include the SFC burger, a mouthwatering creation that will take your burger experience to new heights. We’re also introducing a fish-less fish fry that will redefine this classic dish with a delightful plant-based twist. And I’m very excited about the Korean rice noodle ball, which is like a meatball but made with flavorful noodles, rolled into balls and lightly pan fried! (YUM!)

The fall lineup is all about embracing creativity and expanding our recipe offerings to bring kids an unforgettable culinary experience. It’s going to be great!

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