Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Master Chef Junior: Kenzo and Seiji Make Dinner

With the beginning of school this fall for Seiji and Kenzo also came their entree into the workforce - namely, being "paid" for chores that contribute to the household. My sister and her husband had created a chart that designated the different chores that the boys could collect on. Their "fees" ranged from 25 cents, for chores that are intrinsically beneficial to all, like sorting the recycling, and $1 for greater tasks, like cooking dinner for the family.

Soon after this protocol was established, Kenzo was paid $5 one day, to remove all the childproof locks from the kitchen cabinets - deterrents that were installed during his toddler years. My youngest nephew was always a hands-on learner, who regularly scared all of us with his instinct for locating whatever sharp and dangerous objects were kept out of reach of small hands.

Now that Kenzo is 10, the removal of the locks is an acknowledgment that he can now handle some of these tools on his own, with supervision, of course. Recently, he and Seiji made dinner for the three of us. I was blown away when Jolene told me that Kenzo was making Gordon Ramsay's crispy salmon, which he learned to do from a YouTube clip.

Like most families, my sister, brother-in-law, and nephews spend a ton of time in or near the kitchen. Apart from being the room of the house where sustenance can be taken, the family's main computer, tables for doing tasks like homework, and the general creature comforts of home are all close by. But watching my nephews cook is like watching a family tradition being passed to smaller, less jaded hands.

When my sisters and I were younger, we were taught how to cook rice old-school, in a small sauce pot, rinsing it and measuring the correct amount of water with the second crease on the inside of our middle finger. My sister has a Zojirushi rice cooker the size of a Volkswagen, and infinitely more sophisticated of a machine. Distracted by the fact that Kenzo was wielding a chef knife, I nevertheless was aware of Seiji taking his task very seriously. He rinsed the rice about six times before placing its receptacle into the cooker and switching it on.

Kenzo meticulously seasoned the salmon
with EVOO and salt.
Kenzo methodically slashed the salmon's skin about a half inch deep, anointed the fish with olive oil, and rubbed grains of salt into each cut with his fingers. I tried very hard not to hover, but assisted with placing the pieces of salmon into a pan of hot oil, turning it after four minutes on each side. The hot oil produced a crispy and tasty skin and perfectly cooked salmon. It was, of course, amazingly good, and doubly so because (beware of bragging aunt) Kenzo made it.

On another evening, Seiji, Kenzo, and a friend were watching Master Chef Junior. Chef Ramsay is a different person on Master Chef Junior, his handsome face creased into smiles, not scowls, wearing a  blue jacket that brings out his eyes. He and his fellow chefs, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot, are respectful of the kids' skills, but like most adults, somewhat prone to gushing when children do something precociously amazing.

Another amazing thing about Master Chef Junior is how kind the children are toward each other. While a very few of the young competitors can be arrogant and a bit bratty, they are on the whole, admiring of each other's skills, and rush to comfort the afflicted one when tears or defeat arise. Upon receiving criticism, one observed in her off-stage commentary that, "We can't be A students all of the time." And after one elimination round, one of the kids noted that although she was sent home, she was one of the the 16 chosen to compete, and among the best young cooks in the country. Another kid said that he was going to continue to cook, wearing  his Master Chef apron.

Aunts have the luxury of daydreaming, while parents are busy doing the heavy lifting of raising kids. Whenever my nephews display an interest in anything, like the worst sort of stage mom, I get very excited and think of how a newfound talent might turn into a career in the future. When Seiji and Kenzo were small, I used to ask them each year what they wanted to be when they grew up. I never really got any concrete answers, except once when Kenzo said he wanted to invent toys and sell them.

If you had asked me what I wanted to be when I was Kenzo's age now, I would have said I wanted to be a writer. I've been fortunate in that this dream came to pass, both professionally and for myself. One of the best parts of writing is that I can put down stories like this one.

Home on the range: Look, Ma, I'm cooking!
Auntie Joanie: Why do you like to cook?

Kenzo: Because I like to eat it after.

AJ: Why is Gordon Ramsay your favorite chef?

K: Because he's very good at it. He knows a lot of techniques. He always makes [his food] perfect, and if it's not, he gets mad.

AJ: Do you get mad?

K: Hmmmmm...

AJ: What do you do when something doesn't work out the way you want?

K: I make it again.

AJ: What is the first thing you ever made?

K: Sugar cubes.

AJ: Why?

K: It's less expensive.

Olive oil and salt make for a crispy skin on panfried salmon.
Note: My sister rarely buys sugar cubes. And he doesn't mention the half pound of turbinado sugar that he went through to make about 30 sugar cubes. But it's the journey and not the destination when you're 10.

AJ: What is the best thing you've made? And the worst?

K: Salmon is the best. And avocado smoothie the worst.

AJ: What do you want to learn to make next?

K: Something with beef.

AJ: What are your favorite things that your parents make?

K: Poppy makes fried rice. And Mama makes taco rice.

Although not as ambitious in the kitchen, Seiji realizes its significance as the center of the home. My athletic and fitness-conscious nephew is nevertheless as in thrall of good food as the rest of us, and appreciates excellence in flavor and presentation.

Auntie Joanie: Why did you rinse the rice six times?

Seiji: Since Kenzo was making fish, I wanted to make the rice the best.

AJ: What do you like best about the kitchen?

S: The smells of things like steak, salmon, and curry.

AJ: What are your favorite dishes that your parents make?

S: Mama's taco rice, and Poppy's breakfast burrito with eggs, cheese, sausage, and tomato. And this green vegetable he makes.

AJ: Is there anything you want to learn to cook?

S: Meat is the first thing you need to learn. It's in everything - it's the protein of your meal.

AJ: Why do you think good food is important?

S: Besides nutrition, in my mind, it's an art, kind of, because this is an art you can taste.

AJ: What do you think people get out of cooking for others?

S: The feeling that they are serving other people. That is an important thing for them, and a big responsibility. If they like it, that's an added bonus.

Seiji asked Kenzo, "Do you cook because you like the feeling of being the head of the family and taking care of them?" Kenzo answered with his customary, "Mmm Hmmm." I think he was plotting his next big kitchen project.

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