Iron Daniel

Editorial Notebook

August 08, 2009|By Peter Jensen

The average middle-class child aquires trophies, medals and ribbons like so many Christmas toys - and they are often treated similarly, briefly prized and then forgotten. Rare is the tweener bedroom that does not display a trove of awards, most of it the bounty of organized sport.

But in 10-year-old Daniel's bedroom, there's a somewhat uncommon specimen. There, over by the rotating aquarium night light and next to the dog-eared decks of Pokemon cards, is a bronze-colored trophy featuring a chef in apron and kerchief triumphantly holding what appears to be a carving knife and fork.

Also on display is Daniel's own toque and chef's apron. At least that's where they can usually be found when he's not wearing them - as he often tends to do lately when re-reading his various cookbooks at bedtime.

Do other children behave this way? It all seems a bit peculiar to his parents. But then they've come to expect the unexpected from raising children who rarely fit the mold, so why not the souffle dish?

It all started several years ago. Daniel was always the adventurous eater demonstrating a taste for sushi and steamed lobster when his older sister preferred cold cereal, preferably bland. Where Anna loved softball, Daniel's future as a major league baseball player seemed doubtful - aside from the possibility of being a top draft pick for the hapless Nationals, of course, but surely he has too much pride for that.

Oh, he's tried his hand at most every sport. At some, (swimming, for instance) he's done rather well. But we'd yet to see him muster much passion for any of it. Art and music have been much the same. He can take them or leave them depending on his mood.

Not so watching the Food Network. While other kids may be addicted to Sponge Bob and super heroes, Daniel was glued to the set whenever Bobby Flay or Mario Batali was on. Cooking competitions were his favorite. Some boys memorize batting average; he knows Cat Cora's win-loss record on Iron Chef.

But here was the parental dilemma: Was this something to be encouraged, or was this a budding coach potato au gratin to be dispatched to the nearest playground? Truth be told, watching Baltimore's Ace of Cakes Duff Goldman isn't likely to make you a baker any more than watching "Scrubs," "House" and "Grey's Anatomy" can turn you into a surgeon.

But then he started volunteering to cook. At first, simple things like flipping pancakes or pouring brownie batter. Soon, he was making his own lunch. He started collecting cookbooks and baking cookies and pies. He wanted to learn, but he also wanted to create.

His big opportunity arrived last month. His sister's 14-and-under softball team was headed to Cary, N.C., for a national tournament. He would spend a week at a nearby culinary day camp - not the Cordon Bleu but a 5-day program set up in an authentic commercial kitchen.

Called "Classy Kids Cook," the school offered an introduction to Spanish cooking from arroz con pollo and paella to flan and spanish omelets. It would end with two competitions - he would be expected to create a Spanish-influenced recipe on his own, and he would be assigned to a team in a class-wide Iron Chef competition.

His team won Iron Chef and he took home second for his original creation - a shrimp and avocado tartlet. Not bad for one of the youngest in the class.

Is Daniel destined to be a chef? Will it be "Julie & Julia & Daniel?" Hard to say, as a boy's interests can be as fleeting as a summer storm. Next month, he may be back to Legos.

But for his parents, the thrill is not the prospect of catered gourmet meals in our retirement years (although that would be nice), it's watching a young man discover something that genuinely excites him and then devoting himself to it. No matter where his interests lie - cooking, playing softball or collecting throw-rugs - that's a lesson of commitment and perserverance that is bound to serve him well.

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