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Chef parents use food to teach life lessons

Love is a word like cheese.
There are many different kinds.
-- Chef David Wasson, speaking to his sons

When your father is a chef, life's not just a bowl of cherries -- it's a feast. "A dad wants to teach his children about life," explains David Wasson, an instructor for the Sur La Table culinary program. "For a chef, it's about food."

Wasson, also a chef instructor at North Seattle Community College, opened a home-based commercial catering company in the early 1980s so he could stay at home with his sons instead of working at a restaurant. The boys, Julian and Desmond, not only watched their father cook but loved eating leftover caviar from the jar. By the time they were 7 and 8, each boy was responsible for cooking one family meal a week.

Dinner, Wasson recalls, might be a chili dog, tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches, creative salads or even breakfast. It was totally up to the boys since Wasson's goal was to give his sons some control over what they ate as well as the opportunity to learn to cook

"Encouraging children to cook not only makes them self-sufficient but also sends the message that you trust them and believe they're competent," says Wasson, a certified culinary educator who has taught kids' cooking classes for almost 20 years.

Being the child of a chef, however, may not always seem like an advantage. When Loretta Douglas, daughter of Seattle celebrity chef Tom Douglas, was in elementary school, she was mortified to find sushi or pot stickers in her lunch box while her friends unwrapped peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Douglas also reports that Loretta was initially embarrassed when he named one of his restaurants (Etta's) in her honor. But now that she's 14, she thinks it's cool.

Loretta grew up in the kitchen at Douglas' Dahlia Lounge restaurant, teething on stalks of fennel while perched in her car seat watching her dad cook. When she was old enough, Douglas began teaching her how to cook. "Hands-on is important . . . if a child prepares something, she's more likely to try something new," he says. He would bet her a dollar if she could identify certain flavors, not looking but just using taste, smell and texture.

"I firmly believe that parents need to teach their children how to prepare a meal. It's our job to teach them to be self-sufficient. It's nonsense that parents keep kids out of the kitchen. By the time a child is 9 or 10 they should be able to use a knife -- just get them one that's the right size," he advises.

Douglas admits inviting young children into the kitchen can be daunting. "Don't freak out -- kids are sloppy and will drop things on the floor. And they often won't add the right ingredients," he says. But it's all part of teaching them how to cook.

Chef Wasson agrees that cooking with kids can be messy and advises parents to teach kids to clean up as they go, a good rule to follow for anyone who cooks. And he also suggests designating a special part of the kitchen as the child's responsibility -- it's less daunting if a child has a small area to keep clean instead of the entire kitchen

Trying to cook a complex recipe with young children can also be frustrating. Tom Douglas suggests starting kids off with a box of Jiffy Cornbread Mix, which offers an easy and foolproof baking experience. Just add eggs and milk and a small child can successfully make corn muffins. Douglas also recommends adding browned bacon bits or fresh corn kernels for more intense flavors and to demonstrate how to be creative in the kitchen.

Today, 14-year-old Loretta Douglas often whips up a batch of crepes after dinner and loves to make her dad's blackberry pancakes. Douglas believes the best way to teach children about food is to eat together as a family, and he also encourages parents to invite kids to assist with the holiday cooking. "The kids are excited and will get involved in the process, and it's also a way to pass down family traditions," he says.

Making Christmas cookies was one of the first baking experiences for the daughter of Seattle's star baker Leslie Mackie, owner of Macrina Bakery & Cafe. "Olivia was 3 or 4 and had a very short attention span, and the sprinkles weren't quite on target," Mackie laughs. Now 5, Olivia helps her mom tear lettuce for salads and enjoys making pasta from scratch -- using the hand crank pasta machine is definitely fun. Mother and daughter also bake biscuits together; Mackie says one of Olivia's favorites is cream biscuits with black forest ham and Romano cheese.

Since Mackie often bakes exquisite wedding cakes, Olivia sometimes comes to the bakery to watch her mom do the finishing touches. In addition to being the official frosting taster, Olivia has a very important job: to clean the sink.

Mackie acknowledges that baking with kids is a big mess. "You just need to accept that this is what happens," she says. She believes that planting a garden is one of the most important things a parent can do to introduce a child to different foods. "It allows a child to plant and pick the food they eat," she says. Because children love things with natural sweetness, such as sweet potatoes and sugar snap peas, Mackie tries to incorporate these into Olivia's meals. But even a chef's child can be picky. To make proteins, such as chicken or fish, more tempting, Mackie's "magic" ingredient is plain old ketchup.

For Olivia, being the daughter of a baker definitely has its advantages -- what little girl wouldn't be thrilled to have a chocolate chip cookie named in her honor? According to Mackie, when Olivia was still in a stroller they would take long walks, stopping for juice and a cookie. However, Mackie could never find a cookie that met her standards, so she created one, which is now available at her Belltown bakery. The added benefit? Mackie loves to hear her customers say, "I'll have an Olivia's."

Three-year-old Sebastian Sears, whose parents own Cascadia, is a lucky boy: There's a cotton candy machine in the kitchen of his parent's highly acclaimed Belltown restaurant. His father, chef Kerry Sears, says Sebastian looks forward to -- and actually eats -- the gourmet "surprises" that often come home in small white take-out boxes.

According to Sebastian's mother Heidi Grathwol, her son can crack and scramble eggs and loves to mix pancake batter. He uses a blunt vegetable knife to chop cheese. His parents say he's much more likely to try something new if he "helps" with the preparation.

Owning a restaurant, with its demanding hours, is not particularly compatible with having a family, acknowledges Sears, who usually doesn't arrive home until 11 p.m. Before Sebastian started preschool, Sears says their main family time together was in the morning. Now, the family has to adjust to Sebastian's schedule. There's still an opportunity, however, for Sebastian to eat the 4 p.m. dinner with the restaurant staff, which Sears describes as being like an extended family.

When they cook at home, Sears and Grathwol enjoy making pizza with Sebastian, who loves to help with the dough; but it's not every dad who can throw the crust into the air -- and actually catch it. Sears does confess that sometimes they'll use premade dough from Trader Joe's, adding fresh chopped basil for more flavor.

It's never too late to introduce kids to cooking, according to Sur La Table instructor chef Wasson. "Teens love to eat, so encourage them to cook. They want to be treated like adults but they still act like little kids. Cooking is a cool way to give them some control and also to be self sufficient."

Wasson's wife, Pamela, recalls how her husband started teaching their two sons to cook in preschool while he was operating the home-based catering company. "I thought our 3- and 4-year-old children were too young to handle knives but David was sure, with all the cooking tools in the house, it was safer to teach them what they could use and how to use it," she says.

Looking back, she believes cooking not only gave their sons -- now 17 and 20 -- an important life skill, but it also taught them about teamwork, cooperation and the delight of sharing.™

Deborah Ashin is a Mercer Island-based freelance writer and mother of two.


Chef David Wasson believes 5 to 7 years of age is a natural time for kids to start cooking. "Teaching kids to use knives safely is like teaching them to go up and down the stairs," he says, adding, "If children receive proper instruction, they won't cut themselves." His advice for using knives:

  • Put the knife tip on the table and raise and lower the handle.
  • Keep you fingers together while holding the food to be cut.

A major chef rule: Keep your eyes on the knife --

  • If you look away, stop cutting.
  • Never leave a knife in the sink.
  • Never walk around with knives.

Olivia's Old-Fashioned Chocolate Chip Cookies
From Leslie Mackie's Macrina Bakery & Café Cookbook, Sasquatch Books
Makes 16 cookies

  • 2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  1. Combine flour, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl. Add chocolate chips and mix well with a spoon. Set aside.
  2. Combine butter, shortening, granulated sugar and brown sugar in the bowl of your stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, mix on medium speed for about 5 minutes, until the mixture is smooth and pale in color. Add 1 egg and mix until incorporated.
  3. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then add the remaining egg and vanilla extract. Continue mixing until incorporated, about 1 minute. Remove the bowl from the mixer and scrape down the sides again.
  4. Using a rubber spatula, fold half of the dry ingredients into the dough. After the first batch is fully incorporated, fold in the rest of the dry ingredients and continue folding until all the flour has been absorbed. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and cover it with plastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator for a least one hour. At this point, the dough can be formed into cookies or stored in the refrigerator for up to four days.
  5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
  6. Scoop the dough out of the bowl (use a medium ice cream scoop) and roll the dough into 2-inch balls. Place eight of the balls on each baking sheet, leaving 3 inches between each fall. Flatten the balls with the palm of your hand to about 1- inch think. Place a sheet of cookies in the refrigerator while baking the other sheet.
  7. Bake cookies, one sheet at a time, on center rack of oven for 15-18 minutes each. To help the cookies bake evenly, rotate the baking sheet every 4 minutes or so. The finished cookies will be golden brown around the edges and still light in the center.
  8. Let cool on the baking sheet for 15 minutes.

Loretta's Buttermilk Pancakes with Wild Blackberries
From Tom Douglas' Seattle Kitchen

Makes 6 servings

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3 1/2 cups buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for serving
  • Pure maple syrup
  • 1 pint fresh blackberries
  1. In a bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and baking powder. In another bowl, combine the eggs and buttermilk, then add the melted butter. Gradually add the wet mixture to the dry mixture, stirring with a wooden spoon until just smooth.
  2. Heat a nonstick griddle over medium-high heat. Drop batter by the 1/2 cupful (or, if you want to make the tiny silver dollar pancakes Loretta likes, drop the batter by the tablespoonful) into the hot pan and cook until full of bubbles and the bottom side is golden (lift the pancake with a spatula to check the bottom), 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and cook the other side, about 1 minute.

Serve these pancakes drenched with melted butter and maple syrup along with a bowl of the blackberries.

Mint City Pesto
From David Wasson, C.W.C, C.C.E.

Pesto is usually made with basil, but other fresh herbs work too, and it's fun to try different flavors. Mint is my son's favorite, and the leftovers make a great cold salad if you add some tomato and black olives.

  • 1 bunch fresh mint (about 2 cups of leaves)
  • 1 cup shelled walnuts
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled
  • 1 cup olive oil
  1. Leave the mint in its bundle. Wash it with cold water, then shake dry.
  2. Cut the mint leaves off the bundle with a pair of scissors.
  3. Set up a blender, and plug it in.
  4. Put the mint leaves in, put on the cover, and turn it on low.
  5. Turn off the blender and add nuts, garlic and cheese.
  6. Cover the blender and chop again.
  7. Now uncover the blender and with it running on low, SLOWLY pour in the olive oil. You will see the nuts and mint get smoother. When you think it's smooth enough, stop adding oil and stop blending.
  8. Toss pesto on hot or cold pasta to eat. Keeps 1 week in the fridge.

From "That's Fresh-Kids Cooking Teams"

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