Chef at Home

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When Dad's a ChefWhen Dad’s a Chef

Think cooking for a family of picky eaters is hard? Even a professional chef finds it challenging.

People tell me how difficult it is to make meals that are nutritious and delicious, even for the capricious.

As a chef, I prepare exquisite meals for demanding people who are used to haute cuisine. You might think this is intimidating, but to the contrary. I can handle them. The people who put me to the test and have me shaking in my chef’s hat are my capricious wife and young daughter. Making meals for them is a greater challenge than it would be for me to prepare a dish for Chef Michael Smith or Iron Chef Cat Cora.
My family is more critical and demanding than 99 percent of my customers. My wife and daughter have – how shall I put it – discriminating tastes, and I must keep both of them happy. My daughter is picky when it comes to fruit and veggies and my wife is quite particular on the softness or hardness of her cooked veggies. My heritage is Italian and my wife is Filipina and our cultures cook their vegetables differently. She likes them on the harder side and I love mine soft. Our daughter differs daily on how she likes hers, which might just be a clever ruse to avoid eating them.
So I cook to order. I can still hear my father telling my sister and me that if we didn’t like what my mom cooked we could go to a hotel to eat, but that just doesn’t work in my home. But as parents know, working in the kitchen together can be a great way to encourage your children to broaden their palates. So my wife and I try to involve our daughter as
often as possible.

let’s start with breakfast
Easy right? A bowl of cereal is simple, fast and kid-friendly. But most kid-friendly cereals are overloaded with sugar and don’t supply the nutrition kids’ growing bodies need. Yes you can add some fruit to the mix but seriously, how many of our kids really want fruit for breakfast? So, one morning I invited my wife and daughter to help make a breakfast that was an alternative to cereal. As a chef, I have a lot of experience managing a kitchen and overseeing prep cooks. They can be hard to handle. You don’t want to either push too hard or come off as a wimp. When your wife and daughter are thrust into that role, it can call for some diplomacy. It worked out well in the end, but getting there was an experience in patience and understanding.
My prep cooks were gung ho to get started. My daughter was keen on pancakes, a healthy choice when you make them with whole wheat flour, 1% milk and fresh fruit. My wife wanted French toast, also nutritionally sound when made with 12-grain bread and light maple syrup. After about 20 minutes of debate we ruled in favour of pancakes. As I said, my daughter doesn’t really like fruit, so I figured hiding it in the pancakes might help it go down more readily.
Strawberries? Blueberries? Banana? No. My daughter’s favourite is kiwi. Hardly the sweetest fruit, nor a pancake staple. I was worried it might not taste as she expected and I was trying to avoid adding too much sugar and making it less nutritious. In the end I folded like a cheap suit. Gordon Ramsay would have my head.

The preparation was fun since my daughter, like most kids, loves getting her hands messy and my wife and I like doing things as a family. Half the kitchen looked like a bomb had gone off, but we soldiered on and shared in making our own pancakes. Mine were small as I like them, my wife’s were somewhat larger and our daughter’s looked like one of Paul Bunyan’s. That is the usual case with most kids: their eyes are bigger than their stomachs. My wife and I ate heartily and waited with baited breath hoping our experiment would work. On the job, I am in the back of the kitchen while the servers are on the firing line. I don’t have to deal with any negative feedback until they let me know. But at home I am front and centre. To our amazement, our daughter took a heaping mouthful, followed by another mouthful. Wow. It actually worked. She clearly felt empowered by being involved in the whole process.
That was a load off my mind. I have made pancakes with exotic ingredients many times before for customers. But to have my wife and daughter happy with our creation? That can’t be bought with all the Michelin stars in the world.

Dinner can be scary, too
It’s usually the one meal most families have the chance to eat together. I rely on cookbooks and my own recipes that range from old-fashioned comfort food to the epicurean’s fantasy. Being trained to satisfy people’s appetites, I am always confident I can come up with the right mix to please everyone. Not so fast. I’m cooking for a kid and a life partner and frankly, that can be daunting. Even a simple pasta night becomes a juggling act. There are so many types: linguini, spaghetti, penne, rotini and angel hair. Then there is the sauce. There’s plain tomato (Marinara). There is meat sauce (Bolognese), cream sauce, oil and garlic, pesto and every kid’s favourite, tried-and-true butter and cheese. I have worked pasta bars where customers belly up for a custom creation, choosing from among as many as 20 different ingredients and sauces. But with my wife and child, sometimes it seems there are not enough choices! After using my best sales techniques on my daughter she finally went with the ‘psghetti’ with butter and cheese. I thought I had it all settled and had pasta primavera in mind for my wife but no, another roadblock. She wanted my pasta al olio, which is pasta tossed in olive oil with lightly fried garlic. (In my version, I like to add shrimp and bacon.)
Of course I consented, since keeping them happy lets me enjoy my Sunday afternoon football parties with the boys. We all ate happily and worked together to wash and clear the table, another order filled and smiles all around. From an easy choice like, “hey let’s have pasta tonight” it can become complicated for someone who is expected to cook great meals. I hope my confessions of vulnerability won’t discourage you from getting the kids involved and make cooking a fun team experience. These days cooking can be the one way we can stay connected as families.

Ron Melihen has been a professional chef for more than 15 years and currently works at a Toronto golf club. He hopes to inspire his daughter in the kitchen the way his mother inspired him.

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