Chop. Chop. Chop. Chop. Chop. Clop. Clop. Clop. Clop.
The chef’s knife hits the cutting board at a fast clip with a staccato beat. My oldest son deftly dices mango into little golden cubes. He’s 10-and-a-half years old, but on the smaller side for his age, and I’m not used to seeing his hands move so quickly.
“Where did you learn to chop like that?” I can’t help but sound surprised. Not only am I in awe over his skills, but I’m also a bit shocked that I had no clue he could make magic with a knife.
“Cooking shows, Mom. It’s easy.” He shrugs his shoulders, all the while continuing his rhythmic dicing.
The cooking show that’s become appointment viewing in our house is Master Chef Junior. The Fox Television competition for home cooks between the ages of 8 and 14 is dominating our airwaves, and it’s not just my kids who are hooked. I’m also riveted by the larger than life personalities of celebrity chefs Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliott and Christina Tosi, who lend the show a warmth and friendliness necessary when cooking with children. Clearly their style and the enthusiasm of the young contestants rub off on my son as well. Suddenly, he wants to contribute to our meals.
He starts off with side dishes. At our weekly taco night, he adds a black bean dip to my mix of homemade guacamole and salsa from a jar. When we go on vacation with our extended family, I discover a mascarpone spread he’s created to top off pancakes and French toast. By the time we return from that trip he hits me with the big news: “I want to start making dinner, Mom.”
His declaration renders me speechless, and an awkward silence ensues. None of my children has ever offered to take over one of my “mom duties.” I’m usually begging them to complete the most basic chores like setting the table or making their beds. Cooking a whole meal is nowhere near my radar.
“O…K…” I drag the two letters out slowly in an effort to process the whole situation. I need to be encouraging but also realistic for the sake of both of our expectations. “What did you have in mind that you wanted to make?”
“I’m thinking fish. Maybe fish tacos? I love fish tacos!” His enthusiasm is infectious. Suddenly I’m envisioning a new world of free time as I spend late afternoons writing or catching up with a friend instead of stressing in the grocery aisles trying to come up with something new and exciting for dinner.
Of course, I still end up at the super market. But this time I’m armed with a list from my son of all the ingredients he needs for those fish tacos. I fill my cart with avocados, mangoes, cilantro, and pineapple. He’s making his own salsa. Apparently that’s a thing among these young cooks.
On Master Chef Junior, the contestants do not present the chef judges with a simple piece of chicken or fish or meat. Each dish they create is Michelin star restaurant worthy. The protein of choice is spiced to perfection, often topped with a special sauce made of exotic ingredients, and accompanied by a side dish of deconstructed, whipped or braised vegetables and grains. I can tell by the ingredients I’m tossing into my cart that my son is modeling himself after the dishes on the show and not after my typical weeknight meal of stir-fry or lasagna.
I keep my weeknight meals simple due to lack of time but also due to lack of adventurous taste buds in my children, especially this oldest child of mine. Diagnosed with a peanut allergy at 20-months-old and a tree nut allergy a couple of years later, he’s grown up approaching all food with fear. A healthy amount of caution is wise for anyone with a food allergy, but I’ve always tried to strike a balance between keeping him safe and being rational about what really posed a risk for him. I wanted him to be smart without being nervous. But my son’s anxiety about an allergic reaction made him wary about trying new foods.
All that changed when he passed a food challenge at his doctor’s office last year, declaring him free of his tree nut allergy. It was as if opening up that first jar of Nutella opened up a whole new world of culinary possibilities. Each slice of toast with almond butter seemed to wash away his fears of food, paving the way for the tween chef-in-training who stands before me today, now dicing away at cilantro. Once again I marvel at how finely and skillfully he uses the chef’s knife.
“Sometimes I practice at school with my pencil Mom,” he confesses as he hands me an avocado to prep for him. Being the sous chef is new to me, but I’m good with this role.
I’m also good with the concept of him practicing. For years honing skills has eluded my oldest child, as both his father and I have pleaded with him to make something of his innate musical and athletic abilities. We’ve begged him to sit down at the piano outside of lessons and dragged him to the tennis court for rallies. His willingness to comply varies, but always it’s been us, his parents, driving the situation.
Cooking is mixing-up this paradigm. Through his own volition, he’s watching, learning, and working to perfect his skills. With each strike of the knife, each mixture of spices, each dribbling of a sauce to make a dish extra special, my son is finding a new piece of himself. It’s as if all the lessons I’ve felt were falling on deaf ears are finally coming together.
Thursday nights are now his night to make dinner. We work together, since he’s still learning. But he’s also begging for real cooking lessons and wants to eventually find himself chopping away on Master Chef Junior.
As his mom, I need to foster his dreams and manage expectations. Getting into that studio kitchen is a long shot, no matter how well he cooks. I’m proud of him for setting a goal and working hard to accomplish it, regardless of whether or not he ends up on the program. Then again, should my son find himself donning a Master Chef Junior apron, I’ll be his biggest fan, cheering for each culinary creation those lucky judges will get to taste.