IT’S TRUE THAT very few kids are saving their after-school $7-an-hour paychecks so they can visit Per Se, famed French Laundry chef Thomas Keller’s Manhattan mecca of precious food, as Nick did on his 16th birthday. But it seems 11-year-olds from Exton to Moorestown are tossing around terms like “mizuna,” “beet essence” and “clothbound cheddar” as easily as they rattle off Pokémon characters and rate their favorite Green Day songs. And while the sushi-in-the-lunchbox teen prototype appeared decades ago in ’80s-fest The Breakfast Club, among today’s kids, foodiness is rampant.
“I’ve watched kids grow up this way over the past 15 years,” says Audrey Taichman, who owns the Center City restaurants Twenty Manning and Audrey Claire. “There were kids who were six, and I couldn’t believe what they were ordering. I didn’t grow up going out for dinner. I didn’t grow up ordering lamb medium-rare.” These days, though, Taichman is stunned by the sophisticated tastes of her small customers, as well as of her own niece and nephew, who live on the Main Line. She and her boyfriend Jonathan Makar, owner of Snackbar, have taken Eli, her 16-year-old nephew, to Di Bruno’s for cheese tastings, and Taichman sometimes hosts him in her restaurants’ kitchens. Of Ariel, her sixth-grader niece in Bala Cynwyd, Taichman sighs, “She took me out for sushi last Saturday. She did all the ordering! How does an 11-year-old know toro and spicy tuna hand-rolls?” It could be because Taichman owns restaurants, she concedes, but adds, “There are other kids in the family who come in and order noodles with butter.”
In some cases, it starts with a randomly caught TV food show. One Drexel Hill family with two adorable girls, ages 10 and seven, shielded their children from cable TV since birth. But the parents traveled to Europe last fall, leaving the girls with a babysitter, and returned to find their daughters had become tiny Food Network addicts. “Sarah likes Ask Aida,” says their mom, Kate, a playwright, “and both girls like Food Network Challenge, especially the cake-making episodes.” While Kate has baked cookies with the girls for years, she attributes their new passion for creating fruit smoothies, salads and olive dips to Rachael Ray.
It’s true that chefs, once classified as a group of aging, hot-tempered Frenchmen in toques, have become rock stars. Gorgeous, busty Giada and homey Ina Garten are appealing to pretty much anyone. Then there are the younger male TV chefs, who have helped open up the kitchen to teenage boys. Anthony Bourdain, chef/author of Kitchen Confidential, traveling the world eating entrails at the foot of barely dormant volcanoes, is cool, as are Mario Batali, with his garbage-diving kitchen exploits documented in the excellent book Heat, and Bobby Flay, and Guy Fieri.
Like their sometimes infuriating ancestors, Foodie Adults, Foodie Kids can touch a nerve in those who are nauseated by rampant foodiness and irked by dishes that come with a lengthy pedigree or twee moniker. For a growing segment of the population that curses Top Chef and never wants to see another thing cooked a la plancha, Foodie Kids are a scary and infuriating new breed of precocious spoiledness. As Regina Schrambling pointed out in a recent Slate story, there’s been a backlash against five-year-old Julian Kreusser, who has his own public-access cooking show in Portland, Oregon, and the New York Times Magazine’s stories about the whisk-happy four-year-old son of one of its editors, Pete Wells. Schrambling argues that parents can program their kids to demand homemade pesto, but that true culinary sophistication isn’t possible for a five-year-old.