After two decades of cooking professionally, I am going to go out on a limb and say that I know my way around a kitchen.
A graduate of the professional chef program at Cambridge Culinary School, my knife skills are tight, and I can bang out a multi-course meal with minimal effort. My ingredient knowledge runs from mundane to esoteric and I have a wide breadth of experience in cuisines and cultures from across the globe. In the kitchen, I am confident, creative and adept. At the end of the day, there’s no denying it, I’m a chef, damn it!
Recently, I was asked to take on an aspiring culinary student and provide one on one instruction. Easy peasy, no problem, I’ve done it a hundred times. I was asked to run the student through a series of recipes that, when combined, would make an impressive meal from beginning to end. Piece o’ cake - I’ve taught cooking classes at Christopher’s Table; to large groups of people; and even on culinary tours, en route in Paris.
But here’s the plot twist: the aspiring culinary student was only 9 years old.
Gulp. Suddenly none of my pedigree seemed to matter. A nine year old in a Baby Yoda apron doesn’t give a rat’s ass about my culinary tours through France. I needed to reassess my game plan.
The little boy's name was Otto and while I have known his parents and grandmother for years, I hadn’t seen him since he was a baby. His grandmother shared with me that Otto is something of a culinary wunderkind, cooking meals for his family, emulating celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsey and even insisting on owning his own knives and kitchen tools that were off limits to his parents. And while a part of me wondered how much of this was just a proud grandma boasting about her grandson, there was another part of me that was intrigued.
Otto and I began texting a week or so before our first lesson in order to get a better idea of where I should set my sights and expectations. His text messages were filled with enthusiastic affirmations of vegetables, meats, fish, soups and spices. He expressed an interest in sauces, grilling and creamy soups and stews. Even when the conversation was over, his text messages kept coming. Photos of eggs, perfectly poached and runny; pop-up declarations of “I tried octopus last night at a restaurant in Beverly” and a bunch of short one liners, “I like to make fancy charcuterie boards”, and “I got a haircut just like Chef Ramsey”. Otto had definitely piqued my curiosity.
On the day of our first lesson, Otto sprang from his seat of his grandmother’s car and began wrestling out a duffle bag that easily could have held a small body. Once inside the kitchen, I motioned to the large duffle and asked if he was planning on staying the weekend. Otto explained that he had brought a “few” supplies. Unzipping the bag he began to unpack: cutting boards, prep bowls, spoons, ladle, kitchen towels even a small glass bell cloche with a shiny bedazzled handle -- just in case! I’ve worked with banquet chefs who showed up for a 300 person wedding less prepared.
Tying on his Star Wars apron, Otto announced, with one finger raised in the air, that before he could begin anything he had to wash his hands. Where did this kid come from!? Otto and I spent the next four hours cooking together in my kitchen. We made Pate Choux -- which Otto thought was hysterical because it’s pronounced “shoe”, Fontina Gougeres, Roasted Tomato Soup, Whipped Feta with Nectarines and Heirloom tomatoes, we grilled flank steak with caramelized onions and gorgonzola and we made homemade gelato with grilled peaches and shortbread to fill our profiteroles.
I marveled at the wonderful paradoxes of cooking with a nine year old Otto. He would spontaneously offer to tell me a corny joke and then follow up with critiquing the seasoning of the soup -- definitely needs more salt. He talked about the food in his grade school cafeteria but then gave me a recommendation (with street address) for his favorite Gelateria in Las Vegas, and as we were snipping Rosemary from the garden, he outlined his belief system of why all chefs should grow their own herbs. It was easy to forget that this little human was in fact only nine years old. But the thing that I like most about Otto is that his precociousness for cooking never eclipsed his nine year old spirit. He was curious, kind, thoughtful and silly.
During our afternoon cooking class, young Otto said a lot, (I had forgotten how much a 9 year old could talk) but two things that he said really struck me. The first was “I kinda like [to eat] everything or at least try everything” and “I am open to try to make anything even if it does not work”. Forgetting about food for a minute, if Otto continues to embrace those two simple sentiments as he grows up, I am willing to wager that he's going to be an incredibly awesome human being as an adult.
Otto is one of the most impressive nine year olds I have ever met. I really enjoyed having him as a student in my kitchen but I can't help but wonder if Otto realizes just how much he taught me that afternoon? (or at least reminded me of things I had forgotten). There is so much research and articles written about why children should learn to cook and I agree with all of it wholeheartedly. But the data that I'd like to see are the lessons that grown ups are learning from time spent cooking with kids. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that every professional chef should spend at least one humbling afternoon in the kitchen with a nine year old.
I am convinced that the world could be a much better place -- if we all could be just a little more like Otto.
5 Life Lessons From Cooking with Otto
1. Life is a Challenge
It is hard and messy. It doesn't always turn out the way you expect, even when you do everything just right. It is also joyful and fulfilling. Like Otto, be open to try new things, even if they don't work.
2. Work Together
I’m used to cooking alone and often shoo my own children out when I’m working. Having Otto in the kitchen forced me to take a step back and let him take the lead. Stepping back in to show him how to properly hold a knife or help him with a hot pan reminded me of how important it is to work collaboratively.
3. Be a Try-er
Otto is open to trying new things even if he doesn’t end up liking it. With food or in life -- be willing to experience something new and different -- it makes us better people.
4. It's Okay to Make Mistakes
Otto assured me while we were watching to see if our French pastry dough was rising, "If it doesn't work -- we will just make it again!" Things invariably go wrong once in a while. Don’t sweat it. Improvise and learn for the next time.
5. Be Proud of Yourself
Otto went home and served his meal to his family - he was a rockstar. Remember, anyone can cook. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just give it your best and have fun.