I got an odd phone call a few weeks back. In fact, it began with the woman who’d called introducing herself and then saying, “I have an odd request.”
April 26 was “Take Your Child to Work Day” and the call was about the woman’s daughter Emma. It seems her son was going to work with her husband on the 26th, but Emma wanted to be a personal chef when she grew up — Lord knows how she got that particular idea. Wanting to be a famous chef a la Emeril is one thing, but wanting to be a personal chef is all about the food and cooking.
So few people seem to be interested in cooking anymore. Or at least in cooking for the sake of having something good to eat, something to share with family and friends, something to nourish your body and your soul. Even my brother Loren, an excellent cook, is more likely to feed his kids carryout than to cook — much less teach his kids to cook as our mother taught us. At any rate, Emma’s mother wondered if I’d be willing to show Emma what a personal chef does.
I was flabbergasted by the whole idea. And completely charmed. I asked a few questions, “How old is Emma?” Nine. “Any problems with her using knives?” Nope. “Does she already know something about cooking?” Yep. This was doable.
Most personal chefs have to do their cooking in the client’s kitchen to meet state health regulations, but Tennessee is a rare state because it allows “limited catering” to be done in personal kitchens. As a result, I do most of my client cooking at home, and then deliver the finished meals. This works for me in that I don’t have to schlep three crates of cooking equipment around and it works for the client because instead of having to produce five meals in eight hours, I can offer things like slow braised beef ribs, smoked turkey and homemade stock for soup. Dishes that aren’t practical if I had limited time.
It also worked for Emma because she and her mother could come here instead of my having to get permission from a client to bring strangers into their home. So we arranged a day and time and I figured out what to do in the two hours we allotted for the visit.
I had originally thought I might have Emma go through my standard sanitizing procedures with me (in my business, obsessive cleanliness is mandatory), but I decided that 30 minutes of cleaning would be too discouraging — however reflective of reality. So I relented and instead chose three dishes from the client’s menu we could do in the time she was here.
They arrived promptly bearing gifts of homemade rolls (from Mom), fresh salad greens from their garden (Emma) and fresh herbs (Emma’s little sister). They knew the way to a cook’s heart.
Emma and I were a bit awkward at first — as might be expected — but I quickly put Emma to work. I gave her a paring knife, explaining why it was called that, and had her pit olives for the olive salad I was making for muffalettas. If her mother had said no knives, I wouldn’t have agreed to play teacher. I figure a nine-year-old has the coordination required to use a knife safely and with a little coaching she did fine.
As I worked I explained what I was doing and her mother occasionally clarified or asked me leading questions. Emma relaxed and in short order she was asking the questions and telling me stories.
When the olive salad was done she and I made a marinade for kabobs (yes, I had her reading the recipe and measuring ingredients) and then moved on to making bread for the muffalettas.
The kid was a natural. It was obvious she’d been cooking with her mother, but beyond that she obviously enjoyed cooking. When I’ve told others about that afternoon the first question everyone asks is, “How much did you charge?” In fact that was one of the first things Emma’s mother asked me. But I didn’t charge anything, instead, doing it charged me.
I have deep doubts about the future of cooking in this country. I’m afraid we’re moving away from cooking for the sake of having something to eat. Don’t get me wrong, I love cooking for its own sake as a creative and fulfilling thing to do. But it seems that more and more folks either don’t cook at all or cook as a matter of self-image and for the sake of conveying a lifestyle. But we should cook, mostly, to have something good to eat and because cooking itself is nourishing to our souls.
I’ve taught cooking classes for children for money. But a formal class hosted by Williams-Sonoma is different. With Emma I had a brief window in which to pay forward and I felt I had a duty to do so.