Monday, February 21, 2011

My Passionate Petite Chef

 I had an argument with my seven year old today.  I wanted her to get out her schoolbooks.  She dawdled.  She sighed.  I pushed and pressured.  She balked.  I threatened.  Not my finest hour, by any means.  Here I am trying to coerce her into learning, when I keep having to repeat my own lessons over and over!  I breathed.  I questioned and listened.  She burst out with what she really wanted to do.  Eyes glowing, she told me how much she really wanted to cook something.
The apron was a gift from her bisabuela. :)

Since she was two, my first born has been telling me she wants to be a chef.  This is probably in part because of my reliance on the Food Network when she was small.  The TV was often on as background noise (I know, I know), and it was one of the few channels that Carlos and I both enjoyed that was always age-appropriate for the little ones.  Before he was even two years old, she and Joelito were staging epic Iron Chef battles.

Furthermore, she comes from a long line of good cooks on both sides.  I was born in Puebla, which at least guarantees that I will enjoy good food.  My mother and both grandmothers were excellent cooks.  My adopted grandma from England loved to cook and loved to share that with me.  She always encouraged me to have fun and experiment.  My inlaws are from Mexico and Puerto Rico, and make fabulous food.

Ariana was diagnosed with food allergies as soon as she turned three.  We had to eliminate wheat, corn, eggs, dairy, peanuts, olives (and EVOO), and green beans.   I had to start cooking everything from scratch, because there really isn't much available when it comes to processed food that doesn't contain at least one of those allergens.  I was also appalled at how clueless most people were about food.  I would explain that she had a wheat allergy and they would insist that she could eat bread or pasta because it was white, not wheat.  Or that butter didn't count as dairy.  I wanted to make sure that she knew what was in food first hand from an early age.  So pretty much from the time she could stand on a chair, she (and later each of her siblings), has been helping me in the kitchen.

Today, after listening to her desire, I reminded myself that this is one of the reasons that we homeschool.  She went to the computer and began looking up culinary instruction videos.  She watched several on knife techniques and how to chop an onion.  We talked about the importance of holding her hand so that her knuckles are next to the knife, not her thumb or fingertips (thank you, Anthony Bourdain!).

Then she radiantly set about making her dish of choice, a curried chicken salad similar to the one at her favorite tea shoppe.  She pulled the chicken breasts from the freezer and thawed them.  She filled a pot 1/2 full of water, added the thawed chicken breasts and boiled them.  She drained the water, cleaned the chicken breasts and shredded them.  She chose all the extra ingredients, from poppy seeds to cilantro, and added them, thoughtfully considered then rejected the idea of raisins, tasting carefully to make sure the seasoning was just right.  Finally, she served the chicken salad on croissants.  I limited my role to that of a consultant, and let her do all the actual work.

They were good.  Really good.  In fact, Carlos wanted another one, but they were all gone!  This isn't unusual.  She made multiple dishes for Thanksgiving last year on her own, too, including a delicious corn bread dressing from scratch.  She makes desserts for us on a regular basis.  By the time she was five, she would go fire up the stove and make sincronizadas for herself and anyone else who wanted a snack. 

I think there is something in our culture that makes us want to treat children's passions with a knowing, indulgent smile and pat on the head for the sheer cuteness.  But we don't want to take them seriously right now.  We might agree that there is potential for the future, and that they have an aptitude or knack for something.  But their passions at this moment are often viewed as nothing more than frivolous play.

While the details of her future culinary career change from time to time, Ariana has been saying for the last five years that she wants to have her own restaurant (most likely a tea shoppe).  Today, as I watched her competence and pleasure, I realized that this is serious for her.  Regardless of what she may attempt in the future, this is her passion right now.   It isn't just cute to watch a barely-turned seven year old cook.  This is what she wants to do.  And instead of just indulging her in it, I am going to treat this as seriously as she does.

We agreed that from now on, she will be responsible for at least one family meal per week, and most likely an entire day's worth of meals.  We will collaborate on menu planning, she will help me purchase the ingredients, and on the days when she cooks, I will be her sous chef, limited to assisting in any way she needs, but that she will be the chef.

I am looking into culinary classes for children in our area, and plan to make sure that she is able to focus as much as she likes on cooking during our days.  I don't know what she will do in the future.  I am sure she will eat ;) but who knows whether she will ultimately choose to cook professionally.  However, regardless of what she chooses, I want her to know that I take her dreams and passions seriously, and that I have confidence in her.  She will be much more apt to believe that then if I preheat the oven for her future by taking her seriously right now.


Ya Chun said...


Cooking can teach her so many things - measuring, converting from American to metric units, scaling up or down, food science. It's a great homeschool project!

And I think we need more chefs that personally understand food allergies.

melissa joanne said...

This is beautiful in so many ways, Dulce - thank you for sharing!

dulce de leche said...

Thanks so much! Ya Chun, you are so right--the possibilities are endless. She is interested in writing her own cookbook, and she can easily work in all of the basic subjects by cooking.

The allergy thing is a great point, too. She knows that most baking powders contain cornstarch and things like that beyond just a single allergen.

She was thrilled when we went to Disney and the chefs there understood allergies and were able to fix special things that she could eat. Who knows--she might end up as a chef at someplace like Disneyworld someday. :)

Maria said...

Sounds delish. I am keeping an eye on TB's interest in cooking. So far it is mostly in helping me, but lately he's in to egg cracking, measuring, etc, so we've turned it in to some fun lessons on fractions. :) I could only hope that in three years, I could turn a meal over to him. Selfish? Yes, I know.