“Hey bro, guess what your niece wants to be when she grows up?” My brother is a Key West trained chef and restaurateur who owns Smith’s Coastal Grill, a successful restaurant that fuses coastal Georgia, deep South, and Carribbean cuisines in small-town Eatonton, Georgia.
“What?” he said.
I grinned. “She wants to be a chef.”
Our daughter is seven. Like our son, she started making and decorating cut-out cookies with me when she was two. Unlike our son, her zeal for cooking intensifies with every inch of growth that brings her closer to the kitchen counter.
I could hear my brother smiling on the phone. “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah, she’s been baking with me forever. She can make muffins almost entirely on her own now – gets all the ingredients out, measures and pours, reads the recipe. I stand by her so she can ask me questions, and I put stuff in the oven, but she’s pretty close to being able to do it herself.”
“She’s ahead of the game for most savory chefs then,” he said. “Baking is usually our weakness.”
I remembered the time he called me on Thanksgiving to tell me about the pound cake he made. “It was so much better than those ones at the grocery store, Andrea!” I laughed. Of course it was. “It was moist, and oh my God, it was so good!” he said. “I couldn’t stand not messing with the recipe though.” Though it worked out for him, this is why savory chefs often don’t make good bakers. Baked goods are not forgiving to “messing with the recipe.”
“Well, I think she wants to be a pastry chef, but she doesn’t care. If there’s something going on in the kitchen, she wants to be a part of it,” I told him.
Last year we taught her basic knife skills. We gave her a small knife, a paring knife, and showed her how to hold it facing away from her body, and to keep her other hand out of the way of the blade. She cut soft foods like bananas and strawberries for fruit salads, and she wanted to advance to round fruits like grapes and hard vegetables like potatoes, but I wasn’t ready for that yet. And I wasn’t ready for her to work with heat. She was only six, for goodness sake.
This summer, though, after the third day in a row of her asking “Can you make me a scrambled egg?” I decided this is the year to introduce her to the stove. She and her brother learned how to boil water during the school year when I taught them how to make oatmeal, so progressing from sauce pan to frying pan didn’t seem like too far of a stretch.
“Do you want me to teach you how to make your own scrambled egg?” I asked.
She squealed. “Yes!!”
So I stood next to her and taught her how to scramble an egg. And her first egg was perfect. She grinned as she salted and ate it. We repeated the lesson two more times, and I think by the end of next week she will be able to do it without my supervision.
After the second time she asked for a quesadilla at lunch, I asked, “Do you want me to teach you how to make a quesadilla?”
It only took one lesson before she could make a quesadilla without me.
On Friday we made spaghetti noodles from scratch. On Saturday we made brownies with white chocolate chips. And right now, on Sunday morning, her dad is teaching her how to make pancakes. I’m beginning to formulate ideas for what this could mean for our family, and not just 20 years in the future when we may have our very own pastry chef to make us cookies and cakes and pies and croissants and delicious flaky pastries.
I’m thinking more immediately than that. In addition to enjoying our own sous chef right now, an eager helper to wash lettuce for salads and clean mushrooms for kebabs, we’re grooming her for something bigger. She’s learning basic components of breakfast: scrambled eggs, muffins, pancakes. Maybe, if we play our cards right, by next summer we can sleep in on Sunday and wake to the sweet smell of pancakes frying and the buttery scent of scrambled eggs. I’d be happy to set the table and clean up afterward. The only lesson left is to show her how to operate the coffee pot…