Kids in the Kitchen, Dani Valent, The Age, Epicure, April 2014
The prevailing narrative about children and food is that they’re eating too much, it’s the wrong food anyway and they’re eating it in front of brain-draining screens. They’re overweight, potentially diabetic and on track to number among the 65 per cent (and rising) of Australian adults who are too hefty to be healthy. But there’s a counterweight tale too, one of children who cook and eat healthy food, building good habits for their own lives and perhaps for their less aware elders. They are influenced by cooking shows on television, educational programs in schools, other family members and, sometimes, necessity.
THE BARBECUE SPECIALIST
Jett Masters, 9, was taught how to turn on the barbecue at his regional New South Wales home and is now the breakfast fry-up specialist in his household of five. “I am usually the first one up and I am hungry,” he says. “My dad says my stomach does the thinking for me in the morning.” His short order cooking routine is pretty slick. “Everyone has their eggs different so sometimes I feel like I am working in a cafe,” he says. “Mum likes her eggs runny and dad likes his eggs dry. I can kind of get them like they want them. I even cook mushrooms for my sisters, though I don’t like mushrooms myself.” His mother Amanda approves. “Jett cooking brekkie is a massive help,” she says. “I like the kids to have a cooked breakfast and he might be doing that while I’m making school lunches.”
Jett is clear about his motivation. “I cook so that I can eat yummy food,” he says. His repertoire extends beyond breakfast. “I make butter chicken, smoothies, salads and popcorn too,” he says. “I look in the fridge and decide what to cook from there.” If he’s unclear about ingredients, he will look them up online. “The other day I Googled ‘condensed milk’ because I was halfway through making a caramel slice when I realised we didn’t have any.” He’s had other challenges along the way. “When I first cooked rice I forgot to add water so that didn’t exactly work. Then I was having trouble with my rice domes for plating up but my uncle who is a chef told me to lightly oil the bowl and pack the rice firmly.” Jett doesn’t plan to follow his uncle into a cooking career. “I won’t become a chef but I love cooking. It’s really fun and I feel like I’m helping.”
Fifteen-year-old Elliot Baker blogs about his restaurant meals (ayounggourmet.com) and interns in restaurant kitchens during school holidays. He isn’t sure if he wants to be a chef or a food writer when he grows up but he does know his interest in food was fueled by elaborate dinner parties at home in Brisbane. “Around the age of 10 I started to like helping out,” he says. Assisting has now extended into planning his own dinners, inspired by cookbooks from his collection. “The one I’m most proud of was from my Philip Johnson books,” he says. The four-course menu included pancetta-wrapped scallops, grilled quail with sherry-soaked raisins, and praline semifreddo with salted caramel. “I really enjoy putting a smile on people’s faces, feeling the happiness from serving something I’ve worked hard on,” he says. “And I really love the eating part.” Elliot’s parents don’t count on him to help with the daily cooking and his mum is happy to purchase whatever appears on his shopping list for the special dinners. Christmas and birthday swags include cooking accessories, cookbooks and meals at special restaurants. “They are very supportive,” he says.
Elliot posts his cooking adventures on Twitter and Instagram. He recently uploaded photographs of a five-course dinner, featuring sous vide pork belly and deconstructed lemon meringue pie. Though he was happy with the flavours, the presentation wasn’t up to scratch so he reworked (and rephotographed) some dishes the next day. “On the night, I was a bit rushed and it was dark so it wasn’t great for taking photos,” he says. “We had leftover ingredients so I decided to use different plates and do it again. I want to create a portfolio of good-looking food I’ve made.”
The apprentice is turning into something of a master, teaching cooking classes for younger children. “We do simple stuff like pasta with tomato and mozzarella. I’m a little bit nervous while I’m teaching but it’s good to show kids the basics, things like mirepoix [a chopped vegetable base for French dishes]. That’s a good feeling for me.”
THE KITCHEN GARDENER
For many Australian children, their first cooking experience is now at school, as part of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden program, which has rolled out in 561 primary schools around Australia, engaging around 60,000 children. Ella Mooney, 11, is a Year Six student at Auburn South Primary School in Melbourne where students grow food, care for laying chickens, and turn the eggs and vegetables into healthy vegetarian meals. Ella has been part of the program since Year Three. “You need a lot of patience to grow food,” she says. “You need to check for bugs, keep watering and I’ve learnt that worm poo is the grossest thing ever.” In the kitchen, she’s picked up skills and new dishes. “They taught us how to use a knife: you make a bear claw with your fingers, curling your fingertips under so you don’t chop them.” She’s savoured ratatouille, Thai curries and lemon muffins but hasn’t embraced eggplant soup. “It was pretty gross but I was surprised that I didn’t hate it that much.”
Ella’s mother Karyn is a fan of the program. “I hadn’t been confident with her using sharp utensils but her chopping and preparation skills have really lifted,” she says. “Ella is so eager to help at home and I’m loving it. It takes a lot of pressure off me.” Ella now cooks complete meals, planning the dishes, writing a shopping list and selecting ingredients in the supermarket while her mum runs other errands. On weekends, Ella sometimes walks to the local shops with her younger stepsister. “It’s exciting but it’s a big responsibility to take care of somebody younger than me,” she says. “It feels really nice to be in charge of the cooking. My mum gives me her phone just in case. One time the butcher didn’t have any long sausages so I called home. A lady had told me that there was another butcher across the road and mum said, ‘Yeah, go for it,’ so I did and they were good sausages.”
Ella enjoys the craft of cooking. “I like the chopping and grating and peeling,” she says. “It’s fun to use my hands and it’s nice to smell the spices.” Completed dishes bring gratification beyond taste. “When we’re eating, everyone says ‘thank you for making this’ and I feel really proud.” She relishes the independence her skills have bestowed. “When I’m an adult, I don’t want to be one of those couch potatoes phoning for take away food,” she says. “I want to actually go to the shops and interact with people and come home and cook.”
THE HUNGRY REFUGEE
Some children cook because that’s the only way they’ll eat. Irakiza Jeanchrisoatome Froleni, also called G Storm, is a 17-year-old rapper living in Noble Park in Melbourne, but he was born in Ngara refugee camp in Tanzania and lived there until he was 11. “The first time I cooked I was five,” he says. “I was home by myself while my mum was working. When you’re bored you get so hungry. I had watched my mother make fufu and beans so I knew how to make it. For fufu, you boil water and put flour in it and mix it together and it comes out like a ball.”
UN food rations arrived regularly but were dull and never stretched far enough so camp residents supplemented their diets where they could. Meat was especially coveted. “If we saw a dog with a bone we would chase him until he dropped it, then clean that bone and put it in our soup,” says G Storm. He hunted for rabbits, pouring hot water into their burrows to flush them out, and shot birds with homemade weapons. “We made slingshots from the inside tyres of bikes and shot seagulls, little birds, anything. To cook them, we’d get three rocks, put the wood in the middle, make fire and barbecue them. If you tell this to Australians they feel really sad about it but the birds were really tasty and it’s how we had to eat.” Finding wood for cooking was always an issue. “Sometimes we would wake up at three in the morning, walk for 20 miles, cut up wood, and get home late at night,” says G Storm. Some residents left the camp to hunt. “People used to bring back zebras, elephants, snakes, everything except lion.” Children foraged a spinach-like grass to boil and fry, fashioned empty oil cans into beehives and grew corn and beans. “We would have to sleep in the field with a piece of wood in case someone came to steal from our little garden,” he says.
Coming to Australia was full of surprises. “We were put in a house,” says G Storm. “I had seen a fridge on television. I knew that’s where the food was but we were too scared to eat it. We didn’t even know what some of it was.” The abundance of meat was shocking. “In the camp, if you had one quarter of a kilo of meat you would call yourself a boss. Here, someone brought us five kilograms of meat. It was amazing. We didn’t believe it. But after a while we got sick of all this meat and we were back to eating fufu.” He still cooks, especially if his mother is unwell. “It’s weird because in my culture boys aren’t even allowed in the kitchen. But I grew up without a father and I find it easy and helpful. If you’re a guy and your sisters or your mum are not around you can’t just sit around hungry until they get back. It’s good to learn and I actually enjoy it. I cook African food but I would love to learn to make lasagne.”
Children’s occupational therapist Sylvana Spina is a big rap for the benefits that spring from cooking. “It’s a sensory, tactile experience, involving fine motor and coordination skills,” she says. “Nowadays kids get their hands dirty less so kneading dough, separating eggs, learning the different pressure that you need, it’s all really good.” Spina is a mother of four (her two teenage girls competed in the Junior MasterChef television show in 2010) and also sees benefits beyond physical learning. “Cooking teaches maths through weighing and measuring plus organisational and sequencing skills.” The social aspects are key too. “When we sit together and eat we connect and talk about our day. It’s essential, not just for our little ones but for our teenagers, so they feel that they belong.”
Alice Zaslavsky is an ex-schoolteacher and MasterChef 2012 contestant who now focuses on food education for children. “Cooking is great for learning risk-taking and resilience,” she says. “You fail as a cook and it’s okay. You try again.” She says parents shouldn’t worry too much if their children just want to make sweet treats, at least in the beginning. “I think it’s better for them to bake biscuits than for parents to buy them a box of biscuits,” she says. “They see what’s in them, the work that goes into them, and they see reward for effort.”