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July 8, 2008 at 8:00 AM

Teach your children well: Kids who cook

Cathy West sent an e-mail yesterday (justly) bragging about her son. “You won’t believe this, but Will, my youngest, loves to cook,” she wrote. Actually, I do believe it, because I knew Cathy when she was a professional cook — one who spent her days at Saleh al Lago making Linguine Buon Gusto and little lemon-custard tarts that still have me mentally salivating 17 years later. Will — who turned 14 on Saturday — answered the phone when I called her to chat. When I introduced myself, and asked him how his love for cookery came to be, he explained, without pause: “I’ve been cooking with my mom my entire life.”

What’s more, he said, as part of his school’s eighth-grade curiculum, he recently joined a small group of his Vashon Island classmates, exploring Seattle’s culinary scene during the highlight of the school year: “Exploratory Week.” They took cooking classes at Blue Ribbon Cooking School and Sur la Table, shopped at Pike Place Market, PFI, Salumi and Borraccini’s, and lunched at FareStart. Then, at week’s end, they spent a day preparing dinner for their parents and teachers at a Vashon Island catering facility.

Cathy wasn’t expecting much at the dinner, she later told me, but it was so good “it was shocking.” The kids served antipasti (salumi, marinated vegetables, bruschetta), homemade ravioli, and for dessert, tiramisu — which Will made himself. With the exception of our old boss, Saleh Joudeh, Cathy said, Will makes the best tiramisu she’s ever eaten. And she wasn’t alone in her estimation: her son also impressed the caterers who lent the school space for the dinner, and they subsequently offered him a summer job. He’s making nearly $9 an hour washing dishes, mopping floors and — the part he likes best — helping with the prep-work. Not bad for a kid who hasn’t yet started his freshman year in high school.

My own son, Nate, just turned 10, and while he isn’t old enough for a work permit, he, too, has a great interest in cooking. Recently he asked if he could make himself dinner. “What did you have in mind?” I asked. “Oh, some ham and stuff,” he said. Feeling a blog-post coming on, I grabbed my camera and let him have at it:

First, he chopped some onions:

Then, some ginger (I showed him how to peel the skin off the knob first):

These went into a hot pan where he sauteed them in a little olive oil (check out his “mise en plate”):

Unlike Will, Nate’s not quite tall enough to reach the stovetop safely, so he needed a boost:

As did his aromatic vegetables, he said. I suggested he add some cabbage, leftover from a bag of ready-chopped slaw his dad had used earlier that week. “Waste not, want not,” as mothers everywhere learn to say at Mom School:

Nate pan-seared some Hempler’s ham-steak, which we always keep around because they come in handy at breakfast, lunch and dinner, though admittedly, the Niman Ranch ham steaks, which I sometimes find at Trader Joe’s, are even better:

He planned to use a splash of white white to add a little oomph, but I suggested the salt from the ham would be nicely tempered by one of his favorite ingredients, balsamic vinegar, explaining that the vinegar would also add a touch of sweetness and work nicely with the slaw-ish business. He concurred:

This meal was a pretty quick fix. Once everything was nicely browned, Nate plated up . . .

. . .and made himself an elegant place-setting on the coffee table in the living room:

Then he sat down to dinner. Which, says his proud mom, after trying a forkful, was better than a lot of food I’ve sampled while reviewing Seattle restaurants:

To assuage his sweet tooth, he also made dessert, creating a riff on Rice Krispie Treats. Instead, he used Special K, mixed with microwaved marshmallows and cherry “Fruit Snacks” — those disgusting chewy things I put in his lunchbox because, well, because I’m a sucker and he’s a good kid:

If you haven’t taught your children how to cook, it’s never too late. And while there’s no substitute for a mentor in the kitchen, there’s always cooking classes, nice neighbors and do-it-yourself kiddie cookbooks. I know my old friend Cathy would agree that letting your kid experiment at an early age buys them autonomy in the kitchen later. Give them free-rein and next thing you know they’re hamming it up at the stove — or getting a $9-an-hour job working for a caterer.

So, now that I’ve kvelled about my kiddie-cook, why don’t you tell me about yours?

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