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July 8, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Kid chef from Woodinville heads to the White House

Photo courtesy of Yohko Kelley

Photo courtesy of Yohko Kelley

Sure, Michelle Obama has White House Chef Sam Kass and a host of other high-profile chefs to promote her goal that kids eat more healthful meals. But an actual kid? That’s where Amber Kelley of Woodinville comes in.

Amber, 10, is the Washington state winner of a nationwide “Healthy Lunchtime Challenge” to promote “healthy, affordable, original, and delicious” meals. On the strength of her “Nummy No-Noodle Lasagna,” made with thin-cut zucchini slices, she’ll dine at the White House and tour the White House garden with the First Lady and other contest winners on July 9.

“We thought it would be fun to enter and just see what happened,” Amber said before heading to Washington D.C. “I never would have dreamed of going to the White House.”

She’s already had plenty of experience in the kitchen, though — and in the spotlight.

For the past year, the fifth-grader has starred in her online “Cook with Amber” video show, now at episode 43, and she appears in regular TV guest spots on Q13. She dispenses advice and recipes for healthful potluck possibilities, for dinners such as slow-cooker turkey chili, and for treats such as “super yummy” fudgesicles using avocado and unsweetened almond milk.

She does it all with chipper, unforced cheer, plus the occasional goofy take or deadpan aside, and with the kind of genuineness that only a 10-year-old can display when giving in to the irresistible pull to hold a banana-phone to her ear before turning it into a health-friendly “fronana” dessert.

Amber said she’s been cooking in the kitchen with mom Yokho, a wellness coach (and, not incidentally, a designer at Adobe in her day job), as far back as she can remember. With her mother and her father, Joe, teaching her about healthful living, “I thought it would be cool for kids to learn that, too. I asked my mom to do a cooking show about that, and she didn’t have time, so I did.”

Her goals for show topics are healthful, easy, foods that kids can make — “and, of course, yummy, which is pretty much the point.” For her episode on the winning lasagna, she experiments with different thicknesses of zucchini slices, as engrossed as any engaging kid with a cool science fair project, which it more or less was, with a side of shredded mozzarella and a shoutout for grapeseed oil.

How does she know when a dish is kid-friendly? That is, Amber acknowledged, the hard part. As a kid who loves all types of food — marinated flank steak is a favorite, as is Caesar salad and grilled vegetables — she knows that “if it’s just me (liking a dish), maybe I’m just weird.” She taste-tests on her 7-year-old sister, Lexi, and on her friends, to make sure the recipe will have broad appeal. (Overseers of the national challenge, co-sponsored by Epicurious.com, said they don’t have judges’ comments for what made the dish a success.)

In Amber’s younger cooking days — we’re probably talking kindergarten here — “I cooked a lot, but it was always just helping my mom. I was always just her sous chef,” she said. Now she handles a lot on her own. On the show, she’s comfortable sautéeing meat or chopping big chunks of onions into smaller ones, but always tells kids to ask adults for help when needed. Her own mom is behind the camera, originally an iPad, serving as safety supervisor as well as videographer and co-editor.

(One talented relative who hasn’t been featured on the show? Her uncle, Matt Kelley, pastry chef at Barking Frog in Woodinville. It would be too tough to make his desserts meet all the show criteria.)

Amber said she’s learned about presentation as well as kitchen savvy over the past year. In the beginning, not realizing the impact of the Internet, “I didn’t smile that much or talk that loud. Now it’s a lot easier to do that,” she said.

She’d like to continue with the show and bring her message to a wider audience. (The First Lady seems a good start.) So far, she’s never had a problem coming up with ideas.

“I think a part of it is, we have to eat,” her mother said. “Every day it comes up. It’s not like gymnastics where if you drop it you never think about it.”
(Amber said she does really like gymnastics too, and swimming. “I like to be outdoors and I like to move.”)

Amber’s mother said that at first she didn’t think anyone would watch the show.

“Then I realized how popular this was getting …” she said. “We try not to be too public, but this is a whole new territory for me.”

The food and the person are the same, Amber said, whether on-screen or off.

“I cook the same types of food. The difference is, it takes me longer, because you don’t have it all set up before. I’m not staring at the camera, and I don’t have to talk loud, which is nice, but — I don’t know. It’s not going out for a million people to see or anything. It’s just me.”

Comments | Topics: Amber Kelley, Cook With Amber, Healthy Lunchtime Challenge

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