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(George Doyle/(c) George Doyle)
(George Doyle/(c) George Doyle)

When kids become the cooks Add to ...

'You don't add swordfish to ice cream," proclaims 10-year-old Lauren Hale, an avid Food Network Canada fan. Lauren and her 12-year-old brother, Cameron, are constantly watching cooking shows on TV. Which has led to some strange dinners at their family's Toronto home.

One week, it was Indian chicken burritos. Cameron and his mother, Wendy Buckner, set out to make Mexican food. Then Cameron decided to add curry paste to the bean sauce - which he made with chickpeas instead of black beans. "I think it was okay," Ms. Buckner says. "But his sister hated it." Lauren fixed herself a raw burrito with cheese for dinner.

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"My mother isn't experimental," says Cameron, who adds he is inspired by the Asian fusion work of chef Susur Lee.

Another night, it was tilapia. Cameron went to the supermarket with his father and spent 45 minutes picking the fish. "He had this plan for it," Ms. Buckner says, "and then he came home and announced that he was too tired to cook."

At an age when most kids are lovingly erecting their Facebook shrines or exchanging text messages on MSN, a new breed of child culinary know-it-alls are listening to Gordon Ramsay screaming obscenities or watching an Iron Chef whip up sweet potatoes with eels.

And now they're in their parents' kitchens, ladling out directions.

Pilar Guzman, editor of the upscale New York-based parenting magazine Cookie, wrote last month that haute cuisine is the next frontier in "the precious raising of children."

There are mini-chef courses at world famous restaurants in Paris and London for children as young as 5, and Amsterdam has a restaurant, Kinderkookkafe, that is run by children, with just five adult staff supervising.

With celebrity chefs now dating top models, driving hot cars and earning millions while throwing tantrums, it's no surprise 10-year-olds want to emulate them, but cooking shows have turned preparing a meal into a game show event, making things look too easy, and giving some of these wannabe chefs a peculiar understanding of food preparation.

"They have all these half-baked notions," Ms. Buckner says. The last time she cooked spaghetti bolognese, her son suggested it "needed some curry" - time to turn off Iron Chef.

"They give kids some very unrealistic expectations that they can cook a meal during a commercial break," says Dania, a Toronto mother who did not want her real name used. Her son, Lyle, is also a cooking show fan. "When he was 8, we had to explain that they have three people behind the scenes doing the chopping," she says.

If anything, Lyle is a mini-chef poster child. The 12-year-old has toured the kitchens of Toronto restaurants such as Canoe and the Corner House. His parents have indulged him with gifts such as cookbooks, rectangular plates and dinners out at acclaimed (and expensive) local restaurants Via Allegro, North 44 and Susur.

"I've never eaten so well as in the past five years," Dania says. At home, Lyle is into plating his food and will make his own guacamole and 13-ingredient salad dressings from scratch without recipes. "He's invariably right," his mother says. But when he proclaims, "I'll cook dinner - you don't have to supervise," they draw the line.

Experts, from food author and Massey lecturer Margaret Visser to Julie Mennella, a taste sensitivity biopsychologist from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, say that allowing children to cook is laudable for many reasons - it helps them to learn math, it's creative and allows them to develop a taste for a more varied diet, which can have long-term health benefits. In England, the government announced last month that cooking classes will be compulsory in all secondary schools, in a bid to combat child obesity.

But put a 12-year-old in the kitchen and you're going to run into issues of safety - and of expectations. Lyle will write out menus for four-course dinners. "I couldn't afford to buy all the ingredients to make the items on his lists," his mother says, "like truffle oil and pistachio foam."

Lyle has told his friends his mother's kitchen "is not equipped" for him to cook as he would like to.

So, Lyle's parents try to make sure he appreciates what they cook - that there's enough colour on the plate, that there's paprika on the eggs. "We'll tell him the balsamic vinegar has been aged five years," Dania says.

No doubt this refinement will do Lyle good, say, if he lands a job in the diplomatic corps. But how about the in-between years? Could he handle the plastic cheeses and the Thousand Island salad dressing served up in student cafeterias? When he goes off to school, will his mother have to send care packages from Canoe?

Of course, a talented child whose parents know how to hone their offspring's culinary skills is preferable to a kid simply let loose in the kitchen. One traumatized woman from Calgary complains that she was invited to a barbecue at her neighbours' home, only to learn that it was the two children, ages 8 and 12, doing the cooking.

"Dinner was burgers followed by some sort of chocolate-covered trail mix. It was meant to be cute and intimate, but I don't want to eat food prepared by an eight-year-old," she said. "Seriously, isn't cooking like driving a car, shouldn't cooks get learner's permits at 16?"

One Christmas, Cameron convinced his dad to buy his mother a chef's knife. "I didn't want a knife," Ms. Buckner says. After she opened her present, a Wustof, Cameron promptly took the knife to make an omelette and cut his finger. "It bled all day," Cameron says.

Even if parents manage to produce responsible cooks who can prepare meals without hurting themselves, ruining food, making a mess or poisoning anyone, the trouble in the kitchen is not over.

According to one woman, whose 23-year-old daughter has been a short-order cook at a Toronto restaurant since she was 16, the real issue with child cooks is control - who has it and who doesn't.

She battled with her daughter for months while their kitchen renovation was under way. "I didn't want the kitchen to become her territory ... which is still a contested area." She says her daughter rearranges the cupboards whenever she has a chance.

Now they've reached something of a détente: Mother cooks dinners, daughter makes desserts - ones her lactose-intolerant mother can't eat.

Any kid who has seen Ratatouille knows that all cooks start at the bottom, helping out. And when you really want to run a kitchen, you start your own restaurant - or get your own apartment.

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