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Pass the prosciutto: Foodie parents attempt to raise foodie kids

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Young Chefs Academy, with more than 80 locations across the U.S., teaches kids to make pasta from scratch. (Courtesy of Young Chefs Intl.)

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At a cooking class at Young Chefs Academy, children measure flour to make fresh pasta. (Courtesy of Young Chefs Intl.)

In the garden dining room of a New York City restaurant recently, a 5-year-old boy with spiky brown hair sawed cherry tomatoes in half with a plastic knife.

“Tomato one, tomato two, tomato three,” he said, as he plopped the halves into a stainless steel bowl. Then he wiped his hands on his white apron, leaving pink streaks behind.

Nathan Steinfeld and four other chefs-in-training were preparing crustless quiches made with egg, fresh mozzarella, heavy cream, tomatoes and dried herbs. The venue was Mini Chef, a cooking program for kids in New York City where classes are $40 a pop.

“It’s such a great sensory experience,” said Alyssa Volland, founder of Mini Chef. “You smell, you touch, you feel. And because kids are making the food from scratch, they’re more likely to try it. It’s fun and rewarding for them.”

Foodie parents—those with an ardent love for and interest in good food—are trying to cultivate the same refined taste for food in their little ones. Such parents refuse to subject themselves, or their kids for that matter, to eating chicken nuggets and fries just because these are deemed kid foods. Instead, they help their kids to develop a taste for more adult fare.

So, how are foodie parents living in a fast-food world to accomplish such a seemingly impossible feat? They’re blogging about their experiences, writing cookbooks and, yes, sending their kids to cooking school.

To help parents cultivate in their kids an appreciation for fine food, cooking schools for children as young as 3 are popping up across the country. There aren’t any recipes for bagel pizzas at these schools. The mini chefs make their own dough from scratch.

At Young Chef’s Academy, which has more than 80 schools in the United States, kids prepare dishes like Southwestern tortilla soup and Maryland crab cakes. Kids Culinary Adventures in San Francisco, teaches kids to grow their own basil for pesto. And during a recent class at Kids Cooking Co. in Dallas, young chefs prepared steamed tilapia with carrots and zucchini and lemon broccoli risotto.

“My kids will eat foods you’d never expect toddlers or a 6-year-old to gobble up (salad, even) because they’ve made it,” Kelby Carr, founder of FoodieMama.com, wrote in an e-mail. “There are foods my kids have refused to even try until they prepared it themselves.”

Carr said she started FoodieMama.com because she realized that many other mothers out there care about good food as much as she does. She wanted to create a place for them to share tips and recipes.

“There are many fellow moms who actually take their kids to restaurants without coloring books,” Carr wrote, “who don’t ask ‘Is this kid-friendly?’ when preparing dinner, and who cook with their kids, and who want their kids to understand the value of fine food prepared and enjoyed slowly.”

Hugh Garvey, a features editor for Bon Appétit magazine, and journalist Matthew Yeomans founded Gastrokid.com to share with parents their success raising kids with sophisticated palates. Their blog was born out of the frustration they felt over not getting to go out to fine restaurants after they had kids.

In a September 2008 post, Yeomans bragged about his 3-year-old daughter Zelda’s taste for langoustines (large prawns, to the uninitiated).

“One lunchtime in Mezes (a fantastic little inland port on the Bassin du Thau)” Yeomans wrote, “she nailed three of the beauties plus half a portion of calamari a la Romana. Daughters and expensive (if good) taste—I guess they go hand-in-hand.”

But for some parents, getting kids to eat any food, never mind a beady-eyed crustacean, is no easy feat. Garvy and Yeomans know this; that’s why they started Gastrokid.com, which includes recipes and tips for the frustrated foodie parent. There’s also a “Gastrokid” cookbook due out in August.

Don’t expect sneaky recipes that hide veggies in mac and cheese a la Jessica Seinfeld’s cookbook “Deceptively Delicious.” Garvy and Yeomans scoff at such underhandedness. A mac and cheese recipe on Gastrokid.com contains prosciutto, tomatoes and sage.

“Why would we dumb down our cooking just because we have children at the table?” said Yeomans. “Kids are naturally adventurous. They are keen to trying new flavors, like pickled garlic, that you’d never dream they’d eat. If you can teach children the language of good taste, of eating well, then hopefully that’s an appreciation they will carry with them throughout their lives.”

Garvey takes this one step further. Not only will his kids eat the prosciutto, but they know where it came from. On a trip to a farm in the English countryside with his wife, 4-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, Garvey insisted they all come face to face with their dinner.

“Meeting the piggies didn’t keep my little ones from eating them at lunch,” Garvey wrote in an article for Bon Appétit about the trip.

The kids at Mini Chef in New York City were invited, but not pressured, to try the mini quiches they made.

“Yuck,” one boy said after smelling the quiche.

“You know what?” said a girl with pigtails after picking off a tiny crumb from the quiche and popping it in her mouth. “I don’t like this.”

Spiky-haired Nathan bit into the quiche, his eyes closed, as if he were hoping for the best. He ate two.

Nathan’s mother, Carmen Steinfeld, smiled and snapped pictures.

“He’s a picky eater,” Steinfeld said. “But now he’s much more willing to eat what I call real food.”

E-mail: bli2101@columbia.edu