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?

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?