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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Chefs in the making

For these NJ teens, after school is the time to shake, rattle and roll those pans


In an age when few adults prepare meals from scratch, some kids are turning to the culinary arts for a creative outlet — and saying no to Burger King.

“Kids are getting tired of fast food and want to know how to make good meals for themselves,” says Pat Jacobs, a home economics teacher in her 27th year at Parsippany High School.

While it may seem as though take-out and pizza are the law of the land, some kids are expressing themselves in the kitchen — and then devouring the results.

“Cooking is an art form, like drawing, painting or designing,” says Linda Wien Murray, coordinator of Brookdale Community College’s Creative Cooking School in Freehold, which holds classes for children and teens. “It’s all about colors, designs and flavors. Kids love it.”

Thirteen-year-old Sherin Brown certainly regards cooking as an appealing endeavor. Her favorite dish is coeur à la crème, “heart of cream,” a rich French dessert that is as pretty as it is delectable. The South Orange resident eagerly tackles this sweet delicacy, even though it involves complicated hand movements and delicate maneuvers with ethereal folds of cheesecloth.

“It doesn’t bother me that it’s hard,” she says. “I see cooking as an art.”

Patricia Brown, Sherin’s mother, says cooking and baking provide a wonderful outlet for her daughter’s creative juices.

“Sherin is very artistic,” she says. “She loves decorating cakes.”

Wien Murray, a pastry chef by training, says it’s no surprise young chefs are drawn creatively to cooking and baking. Her 7-year-old twins have spent many delightful hours painstakingly crafting decorated cupcakes.

“My students beam from ear to ear. They love it. They absolutely love it,” agrees Gail Blazure, who has taught home economics at South Orange Middle School for 25 years. “They get to sit down at the end and enjoy a meal of their own creation.”

Aspiring teen chef Philip Rosende, 15, recently created a delicious menu featuring filet mignon, potato croquettes and julienned vegetables, with strawberries flambé for dessert — an exquisite meal that looked and tasted like it was prepared in a fine restaurant.

“I feel good cooking for people,” says the Sparta resident. “It’s not too hard, and it makes people feel so good.”

In addition to his regular studies, Philip is learning commercial foods and commercial baking at Sussex County Vocational-Technical School. He toys with the idea of becoming a professional chef, but isn’t sure if the long hours and high stress are for him.

Still, with youthful enthusiasm, he says, “I’d love to open my own restaurant.”

In addition to providing an outlet for their creative energies, kid chefs say they like cooking because they get to eat what they create.

“Most parents aren’t around much, so there is a tremendous need for kids to know how to cook,” says Jacobs. “I think kids are happy they can go home and make something for themselves.”

Some kids take this notion even further by preparing meals for their parents.

Eleven-year-old Alex Bortnichak makes dinner for the family almost every night.

“It’s a fun thing to do,” the Sparta resident says. “Why not do it for my parents? They have a hard day at work. It’s nice for them to come home to a good meal.”

Some of Alex’s favorite dishes are vegetable soup, lemon cake with coffee icing and a chicken dish of his own creation — marinated in orange soda and Worcestershire sauce. He loves to experiment and never uses a cookbook. Everything he knows about cooking he says he learned from the Food Network, which he watches religiously.

Lots of young chefs, however, learn cooking at the feet of parents who love to cook.

Philip’s father, Louis, a former chef, worked at the Rhiga Royal Hotel in New York City, though he is now in the midst of opening a business unrelated to food.

“Cooking is a nice thing to pass on to children,” says Wien Murray. “My excitement about the kitchen came from my mother and grandmother.”

Twelve-year-old Ben Stone of Bernardsville has been chopping vegetables since he was 5.

“I like cooking a lot,” he says. “It’s fun to do. When I taste it, I think to myself, ‘Wow, I cooked that.’”

Ben’s father, Edward Stone, is executive chef and part owner of the Bernards Inn in Bernardsville. Edward trained at the Culinary Institute of America and spent many years working in New York City.

Ben’s siblings — brothers Charlie, 15, William, 9, and Peter, 4 — all like to cook, too. “We’re always cooking,” his mother, Ann, explains. “So we might as well put them to work.”

The four sons can prepare complete chicken fajita dinners and are especially adept at cooking breakfasts of omelets and French toast. Charlie makes chocolate chip cookies from scratch and grilled cheese sandwiches for a crowd.

“It’s important that kids be able to fend for themselves and feed themselves,” says Edward. As for following in his footsteps, he says, “I don’t strongly encourage it. I find it rewarding and I enjoy what I do, but it’s not for everybody. It’s a lot of time away from the family. If they want to, I’ll help them. But if they want to go in their own direction, that’s fine with me.”

Cooking, which by its very nature exposes kids to various foods, often has the effect of preventing picky eater syndrome. Ben, for instance, has cheerfully eaten figs, pheasant and goat cheese.

“I’ll try anything once,” he says. “But I draw the line at liver.”

These junior league chefs say they started out with easy fare such as toast, and gradually ascended to higher levels of culinary expertise.

Do boys ever feel that the kitchen is a woman’s place?

“No, no, no,” says Alex. “It’s not just a girl thing.”

“In this day and age, it’s not just for girls at all,” agrees Philip.

Their cooking is so popular, in fact, that friends from school gladly play the role of chow hounds.

“We call our house ‘the hotel,’” says Ben. “Our friends are here all the time. They think it’s so cool.”

Philip’s friends think his cooking abilities — and results — are “really awesome.”

“They always come over,” he says. “It’s so easy to impress them. I’ll make fettucine Alfredo, which is really easy, and theyll say, ‘Oh, this is so delicious.’”

Some young cooks draw the line, however, when it comes to cleaning up. Though they try to tidy up, they say good old mom can be depended on to scrub messy pots and pans.

But it seems to be an equitable tradeoff.

“I’ll wash a million dishes as long as he cooks,” declares Mirna Rosende, Philip’s mother.