Trends: Down With Chicken Nuggets!

The most sophisticated generation of Philly kids ever is renouncing its gordita-eating ways to embrace the joys of ponzu and organic duck eggs. But can you really be a foodie when you’re only four feet tall?

At the start of summer, a part-time chef at Lacroix named Nick Normile posted the following entry on his blog, underneath a gorgeous picture of a dish he’d put together for dinner: “This right here is the food that I really like to eat. It’s healthy, it’s local, it’s fresh. Eating like this gives me a lot of personal satisfaction, and I feel great afterwards. It’s grilled asparagus from a nearby farm, incredible, extra-sharp chèvre from another nearby farm specializing in goat’s-milk products, basil and chives from my backyard, walnuts, and a few squeezes of lemon juice. And it really needs nothing else.”

Normile has also recently blogged about his concept for a sustainable, better-tasting business model for fast food (“Chicken Confit. Chicken Breast. Pulled Pork. Pork Belly. Brisket. Burgers. All the meats would be sous-vide before being seared to order, or in the case of brisket or pulled pork, held warm”); enjoying duck eggs from a friend’s farm; his love for the grain quinoa; his experiments with baking bread using Michael Ruhlman’s book Ratio; and his grief over the addition of an à la carte menu at the formerly prix-fixe restaurant Per Se in New York City.

Also in May, Normile blogged, “Posting has been slacking lately. I’m having trouble balancing homework, studying for the chemistry SAT 2’s, preparing for finals, going to Lacroix each week, working at Rita’s water ice a few days a week, and writing on my blog.”

Perhaps Normile was being a bit hard on himself, given that he just finished his sophomore year at Lower Merion High. At 16, he has held jobs at Osteria and Amada, just passed his driver’s-license exam, runs track, and even found time to prepare chicken confit for his mom on Mother’s Day. His stint at Lacroix is a slogging eight-hour apprenticeship every weekend, and he spends hours cooking at home and working on FoodieatFifteen.blogspot.com, his well-written and delightfully unjaded blog.

“None of my friends like to cook so much,” he told me one day in May after school, “but they like to eat what I make.” Normile, who has dark hair, hazel eyes and a slim runner’s build, recently created Butterscotch Krimpet ice cream for his buddies, in a rare foray into junk food.

Normile is perhaps the most extreme and frankly awesome example of a bona fide ’tween-and-teen trend sweeping the Philly area: the kid foodie. For those of us who spent our pubescent years guzzling Tang and pop-top cans of Tab, who couldn’t wait for our parents to head out on Friday nights so we could fire up some frozen Ellio’s or quick-fry a Steak-umm, these are perplexing times. Sure, Philadelphia is now officially a food town, and we are smug in the knowledge that our current Whole Foods-centric existence is much healthier than our Stouffer’s-filled childhoods. But how did our kids come to be enjoying maitake mushrooms, lamb saddle and ponzu?

“I don’t cook at all,” says Normile’s mom, Rosemarie Fabien, a PR consultant to architectural firms, sounding a bit baffled, albeit proud. “I make pasta, and macaroni and cheese. I never made a cake that wasn’t from a mix.” That, said she, supports her son fully. In early June, at her son’s request, she picked up 23 pounds of strawberries from Linvilla Orchards while Nick toiled at Lacroix.

“He’s made strawberry tarts, strawberry ice cream, and he had us get dry ice so he could replicate a recipe of Alton Brown’s, plus he made six jars of strawberry-rhubarb jam,” she says. “I just wish exams weren’t in his way. Strawberry season is only two weeks long.”

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.

Plague to society or not, the trend is a lucrative opportunity for area cooking schools and restaurants. Viking Culinary Center offers camps and one-off classes for kids ages seven through 16, at which students in its gleaming stainless steel and granite test kitchen poach fish en papillote and roast garlic for aioli. Meanwhile, the Kitchen Workshop in Paoli offers slightly less pricey but equally ambitious programs of pastry camps and kitchen basics for the same age group. The Young Chefs Academies in Montgomeryville and Exton are part of a 100-store national chain that teaches kids as young as six culinary basics. While the glut of $375-per-week kid cooking classes may be expensive, and breed unrealistic expectations (“I just know Billy will be the next Jose Garces!”), they can be an excellent non-­computer-dependent hobby for kids who haven’t found their place on, say, the lacrosse or soccer fields. And it’s not only rich kids who’ve discovered cooking: Frankford High School’s culinary arts program is so successful that it’s made national news; a film about it won Best Documentary at the Philadelphia Film Fest. Supportive parents, though, do help.

“I started to become really interested in food around sixth grade,” Nick Normile says. “My friends would tell me about these nice restaurants they’d go to in the city, and I had to go.” Amazing but true — there is restaurant buzz among middle-schoolers. Naturally, your average Main Line kid has been to most Stephen Starr spots, with Buddakan and Pod especially popular for birthday dinners.

At home, Normile started replicating dishes from the restaurants he occasionally convinced his parents to take him to, and proved so talented a cook that when he was 13, he landed the Lacroix gig (which, glamorous as it sounds, has some of the same ups and downs as any other teenage job: “I usually do the garde manger station, making raw fish, salads, things like that. At night I get to help out at a station making dinner. That’s not to say I don’t get yelled at, but overall I get treated pretty well.”).

So are foodies born, or made? Likely both, but sometimes they seem to erupt out of nowhere. Rosemarie Fabien, Normile’s mom, says no one else in the family shares his eclectic tastes, including his sisters. “Nick has no patience for Carolyn, who’s in ninth grade, because she’s a vegetarian,” Fabien says, “and one of his favorite foods is foie gras. And his other sister, Grace, in fifth grade, only eats beige food. She eats pasta, Rice Krispies and garlic bread.”

“In Morocco, my kids ate pigeon with powdered sugar,” says Dasha Alexander, a Gladwyne socialite, laughing, discussing Nicholas, 16, and Katherine, 13. “It’s a pastry thing with the pigeon inside. They like caviar, quail eggs. They’ve eaten squab.”  Last year when they visited Iceland, Nicholas tried a local specialty that Alexander herself wouldn’t touch: puffin bird. “He’s never really liked pizza,” she sighs.

WILLIAMS-SONOMA STORES and upscale restaurants have all become so common that most of us can barely remember 30 years ago, when dining options in the city and suburbs were far more limited. On the far end of the Main Line, for instance, there were only three places to eat: Italian restaurant Martini’s, in Devon; Chinese Delight, a tiny shack also in Devon (still there!); and, for big occasions, expensive and fabulous L’Auberge in Spread Eagle Village. That was it, until the Bennigan’s across the street opened in the early ’80s. How are you going to mold tiny foodies with those kinds of options?

In the ’80s and ’90s, Japanese, Indian, and casual Italian and French spots became suburban staples around Philly. With both parents working in many families and the economy in a boom, grabbing a sushi or pasta dinner became a regular weeknight activity. Families also began taking their kids downtown more often, as the city exploded with great restaurants.

Of course, 30 years ago, parents were still much more likely to go out to dinner without their kids, considering dining-out an adult activity. Like much of child-rearing, what kids eat and how they order it has undergone a huge shift toward permissiveness and self-expression over the past two decades. “I think parents are treating their kids like friends these days,” restaurateur Taichman says of the interactions she witnesses at her bistros. “These are cool, urban folks, so some of the kids are way out there.”

So is foodiness the new soccer? Are we destined to be Foodie Moms? Ironically, much like soufflés and mousses, soccer barely existed in the U.S. until the mid-20th century, but by 1985 had surpassed football as the cool high-school sport. As David Kamp points out in The United States of Arugula, so too was gourmet food little-known on our shores before the “Big Three” — Julia Child, James Beard and Craig Claiborne — popularized it and brought haute cuisine into America’s kitchens. Where fine dining had once been restricted to the very rich, most middle-class Americans were at least aware of things like paella and handmade pasta by the ’70s, and in Philly, had been to Frog and La Terrasse and Friday Saturday Sunday.

Since the 1930s, some suburbanites have made Saturday forays to the Lancaster County Farmers’ Market in Wayne, eating locally grown, sustainable food long before it was chic. Finally, in the ’90s, Whole Foods opened in Devon, and later in Wynnewood, supplying us with reams of information about where our food came from. In 2001, South Street’s Django astonished us with its simple but brilliant dishes, and a spate of BYOBs in Philly and the ’burbs made it almost impossible not to become, at least in some small measure, a foodie.

IN RARE CASES, an early passion for food is not only cool; it provides a career path. Nick Normile got a book offer, and he and his father were tendered a trip to California this summer by Jamba Juice for a special new-product tasting for food bloggers. More often, though, kids who are food-aware are simply heading for healthy, well-rounded futures as eaters, not chefs.

 “I love salmon, and sea bass. And tilapia. And I like prunes, and figs!” Out in Bryn Mawr, Alexa, a small and delightful girl with big green eyes and long brown hair, is pulling things out of her refrigerator and cabinets, showing me her favorite foods. Alexa, who is about to become a third-grader at Episcopal Academy, is in her mom Ana Maria Lenfest’s beautiful kitchen, where the two love to cook organic pancakes and pizzas together.

Alexa doesn’t have ambitions to become a chef — she’s currently wavering between a future as a lawyer, a teacher and an actress — but she’s health-conscious. And she really doesn’t like the food at McDonald’s. But she tells me that even though her favorite restaurants are Samurai and Fuji, the Main Line sushi spots, she just can’t stop thinking about the chocolate lava cake she had at Blush in Bryn Mawr for her mom’s birthday. “It was so good,” she says.

At school, she learned that soda has a lot of sodium in it. “And, it gives you burps,” she adds. So true.

“Salmon has what in it that’s good?” prompts her mom.

“Mega-3s!” says Alexa. (Close enough.) But Alexa is, at the end of the day, a kid. She’s twirling, and looking at a package on the counter. This contains (all-natural) fudge brownies. Finally, she shouts:

 “I really want that brownie!”

Well, kids are still kids. Even the really sophisticated ones. Like anything else, balance is the key to a passion for locally grown, super-tasty food. So as we fret about mercury, hormones and pesticides — scary things, all — maybe our foodie kids will find a better balance. They’ll still chow down on Big Macs now and then, but eat organic chicken and free-range eggs the rest of the week. They’ll find a balance that’s tasty, sustainable, and occasionally a little junky, with plenty of Mega-3s. And they’ll continue to enjoy the pleasure that sharing meals has always brought to people. As Nick Normile reflected recently, “Cooking is a great way to get girls to come over to your house.”