Chris Toy teaches cooking in a number of places across Maine.

FREEPORT — Chris Toy could redefine what it means to be a modern-day renaissance man.

Born of Chinese descent but raised in New England, Toy, 64, thrives on the challenge of combining authentic culinary flavors with locally-sourced ingredients to encourage education through sensory exploration. His international travels are inspired by the local and regional culinary culture; he travels far and wide to learn about new flavors and cooking techniques, which he eagerly shares with students in his cooking classes upon returning to Maine. 

His talents extend beyond the kitchen. In addition to being a cooking instructor, Toy is a former teacher and middle school principal, technology consultant and entrepreneur and newly established Registered Maine Guide.

Although Toy could teach cooking classes every night of the week up and down the coast of Maine during his retirement, he is eager to find new ways to combine his interests in culinary education and the Maine outdoors. He recently became a Registered Maine Guide to pursue his passion for teaching in combination with the Maine landscape that he loves. Toy recently led a guided hike of Mt. Katahdin and hopes to explore more of the Maine outdoors.

Recently, Coastal Journal contributor Kelli Park spoke with Toy about his Chinese heritage, his love of cooking, technology in the classroom and how engaging the senses helps with learning.

CJ: You have an interesting background. Describe it.
Chris Toy: Both of my parents were Chinese-Americans who met in the army. Within a month or two of their meeting, they were both shipped off to different parts of the world during World War II—Dad went to the Pacific and Mom went to Europe. They got home and found out they couldn’t have children, so they looked to adoption. It just so happened, at that time, that Great Britain and the U.S. had entered into an agreement to allow American adoptions of Chinese babies from Hong Kong; there was a lot of turmoil at that time during the 1950s. I was the first baby adopted out of Hong Kong under this agreement, and my sister was the second. We were in the same orphanage, so she’s not my biological sister. The way my mom explained it was that I know for sure they wanted me because they had to go through a lot to get me.

CJ: How did you become interested in cooking?
CT: I grew up around the kitchen, and my mom taught me a lot. We would go into Boston and into Chinatown on weekends. Both of my parents’ families owned restaurants—one in Quincy, Mass., and one in Milwaukee. My mom brought me into the kitchen and said: ‘Unless you learn to cook, you’ll get married for the wrong reason.’ When I asked my parents about going into the restaurant business, they cautioned me and said that when you’re in the restaurant business, all your friends will be restaurateurs and, when everyone else is playing, restaurateurs are working. They said go to college first and decide what you want to do. I did exactly that and went into teaching. I’ve been teaching cooking for over 30 years. 

CJ: You’re technically retired. What kinds of professional experiences have you had?
CT: I taught high school social studies for seven years and then became a middle school principal. Sen. Angus King’s project with the laptops launched me into being an international consultant. Because we were pretty successful in Freeport using technology, we had visitors who asked me if I’d be willing to go to their schools to help them. I said that I had a job, and they said to let them know if I ever wanted to do anything else. I left being a principal and became a consultant, teaching other schools to do what Maine did. I worked with principals, teachers and superintendents to come up with a plan and a mindset like the MLTI, the Maine Learning Technology Initiative. It’s about learning first. I also work on Boomer Tech Adventures, a business aiding baby boomers who are struggling with technology. 

I teach cooking classes at Stonewall Kitchen, Now You’re Cooking, the Schoodic Arts Festival and adult education programs in Bath, Windham, Cumberland, Boothbay, Freeport, Waldoboro and Damariscotta. My wife says I’m failing at retirement. I also do some teaching for the Chinese & American Friendship Association in Portland. Many of the students are adopted Chinese, so you can see the connection. I teach them cooking, and it’s a way to keep them connected to their culture. 

CJ: What’s important about culinary arts and education?
CT: We eat every day. Some people eat to live, and some people live to eat. I think I probably live to eat; I enjoy food. From an educational point of view, teaching cooking is probably one of the best ways to teach; the best way to learn something is through experience. The more senses you can engage in teaching and learning, the more you’ll remember and the more fun it will be. It’s pretty well recognized that your sense of smell affects your sense of taste, so if you smell something, it’ll have a stronger impact on your taste. You’ve also got the kinesthetic piece. You can feel the texture—warm or cold, hard or soft—and that visual sense of bright colors in fruits and vegetables, the redness of the meat, looking at something to see how done it is; you engage all the senses. 

CJ: How does food connect us?
CT: As human beings, we’re all born with the same capabilities. I think research has shown that a newborn baby has the capacity for all languages—all of them. Obviously, you learn one, two, three languages, but if you can pick up those languages when you’re younger, you’ll become a linguist. I think that taste is probably the same. As we age, our preferences become narrower, but I think we’re born with the ability to enjoy different flavors. The sooner that can happen, the better. It’s never too late, because eating is such an important part of being alive. In almost all cultures, eating is social. Every culture has banquets, every culture has a breakfast, every culture has a big meal at the end of the day, desserts, beverages. Experiencing those is what makes us human. We’re probably the only beings that experiment with foods because we’re tool users, but also because we’re probably the most widely dispersed organisms on the planet, which means we can experience and taste different foods. Foods come directly from our culture because it comes directly from our environment; depending on where you live, you’re going to have different foods and different ingredients. It’s another way of experiencing that. Nowadays, it’s even more diverse because you can grow different foods that aren’t native to where you live.

CJ: How do you combine Asian influences with Maine ingredients?
CT: When you get right down to it, it doesn’t matter what you’re teaching; all that matters is that it’s good teaching. The best way to learn something is to teach it. I was teaching these different cuisines, and I realized that different flavors go together, and different techniques can cross. That’s where I came up with the idea of Downeast cooking, which uses a lot of seafood and fresh ingredients. Then I thought, Downeast Far East. Could I combine some of the ingredients and techniques of Asia with fresh Maine ingredients? I started off simply. Everyone is familiar with wontons. Wonton soup is like the chicken noodle soup of China—people generally like it because it’s mild. The traditional filling is pork or chicken, but I wondered, what if I put in lobster and shrimp? I started doing that and using ginger and garlic, which is used in Maine cuisine, and it worked out really well. I used seafood broth, instead of pork or chicken broth. The Holy Trinity of Chinese Cooking is ginger, garlic and soy sauce. Then I started to wonder if I could use ginger, garlic and soy sauce in some more traditional recipes. Mainers like haddock, so that led me to do a broiled haddock with ginger, garlic and soy sauce. Sprinkle some scallions on it, and you’ve got a Downeast Far East flavor.

CJ: You recently became a Registered Maine Guide. Why?
CT: One of the great resources of Maine is the natural environment. What’s great about Maine is that, even in a very short distance, you can be in the mountains, and in the same day, you can be on the ocean, in the woods, on a lake, on bike trails or hiking trails. One of the aspects of being a Registered Maine Guide is describing the environment that you’re hiking in, learning about the lay of the land, the flora and the fauna. The highlight for me, in addition to that, is teaching people how to work together and to cooperate. 

CJ: How do you plan to combine your interests as a Registered Maine Guide and a cooking instructor in the future? 
CT: Food tastes a lot better after a day of exercising in the outdoors and talking to friends along the trail. One of the important things about being a registered guide is feeding people when they’re on the trips. I’ve always enjoyed cooking outdoors, because I’m usually indoors teaching in a kitchen. I wondered to myself if I could combine convenient indoor cooking with some of the outdoor exercise. I think we’ve come up with a way of doing that by using a house that we can all stay in, after a day of hiking or biking in the outdoors, and then just setting up our traditional indoor cooking class with hands-on demonstrations. After exercising in the outdoors and after a nice meal, we can just relax somewhere comfortable; it’s not strictly camping in this case. If you like both of those things, and you like being in the outdoors and learning how to cook, that’s the way to do it. 

Starting in 2019, Chris Toy will offer a number of outdoor adventure weekend packages in which participants have the opportunity to participate in guided hikes and excursions, hands-on cooking lessons, family-style meals, cultural events, and shared accommodations in the following locations: Acadia National Park (Mount Desert Island and the Schoodic Peninsula), Baxter State Park, and more! For more information about upcoming classes and excursions, visit christoy.net.

Kelli Park is a Coastal Journal contributor. She can be reached at [email protected]

Comments are not available on this story.