Kids have fun — and learn practical culinary skills — with help from Emeril’s new cookbook
There’s something about TV chef Emeril Lagasse that clicks with kids.
It could be because he’s a father of four, or because his “Emeril Live” series on Food Network is punched up with peppy jazz and phrases like “Happy happy.”
Maybe it’s because his trademark “Bam!” — often accompanied by broad gestures as he adds spices or “gahlic” to a dish — is easy for even a toddler to say.
The attraction is mutual. Lagasse encourages giving kids free — but safe — rein in the kitchen, arming them with age-appropriate cookbooks that parents can enjoy as well. His third kids’ title, now in stores, is “Emeril’s There’s a Chef in My World,” featuring more than 70 international recipes and a few American classics.
“I wanted to bring cultures of other places in the world that I know are submerging in this great melting pot,” he said in a phone interview.
Lagasse doesn’t scare children away from using a stove or a sharp knife, but instead instructs them in how to do so safely and insists they have an adult on hand. So this is not a dumbed-down reference book on 100 fun things to do with a butter knife, toothpicks and a microwave.
“You can’t fool kids,” he said. “You shouldn’t talk down to them. I can’t tell you how many e-mails and letters we get, how many kids are at the show and, besides being fans, are cooking.
“They say, ‘Jessica’s 15 and twice a week she’s making family dinners.’ For me, that’s so refreshing, because that’s my life.”
“Chef in My World,” a follow-up to “There’s a Chef in My Soup” and “There’s a Chef in My Family,” opens with a description of kitchen implements and instructions on different preparation and cooking techniques, such as stirring vs. folding, and mincing vs. dicing. He also stresses cleanliness of utensils, work spaces and hands.
Using healthier ingredients
While he doesn’t shy away from butter and sugar on his Food Network programs, Lagasse leans toward less-fattening ingredients in his children’s cookbooks. Research by the American Heart Association shows that kids who cook tend to eat more fruits and vegetables and other healthy ingredients than those who don’t.
The recipes span several continents and include main and side dishes as well as desserts. And just because it’s kid-friendly doesn’t mean there are severe shortcuts on ingredients or steps.
Shrimp and Veggie Summer Rolls, representing Vietnam, call for fresh herbs and ginger, in addition to large shrimp to be peeled and deveined by the cook. His Huevos Rancheros demand fresh, homemade salsa, not jarred. The Super-Cheesy Risotto is one of several dishes allowing for improvisation.
American selections Barbecue Ribs and Old-Fashioned Apple Pie are strictly from scratch.
Each one comes with a flag of its country of origin, a global map showing the region, a photo from the country and, in many cases, a fun fact about the history of the dish or a key ingredient.
Charles Yuen’s primitive watercolor and marker illustrations keep the recipes accessible to inexperienced cooks. Without the idealized photos of perfectly executed dishes, kids will be more accepting of their less-polished finished products.
Mindy Trotta, a pastry chef who teaches kids’ cooking classes at Gelson’s supermarket in Calabasas and the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Chefs in the Classroom program, says bringing kids into the kitchen can be educational on several levels.
“We’ve learned vocabulary, math, science — how you turn a solid into a liquid, why things melt, what yeast does,” she said.
Generally avoiding desserts with her LAUSD classes, she also stresses good nutrition and the benefits of fresh ingredients over heavily processed foods. And like Lagasse’s new book, Trotta uses exotic fruits and vegetables to raise young cooks’ awareness of what other cultures eat.
Trotta says children are more inclined to enjoy a meal they helped prepare than the same one placed in front of them.
“It kind of demystifies the big black bubble around foods that you’re not familiar with,” she said. “If you see how they’re prepared and what goes into it and you know you had a hand in it, they’re much more apt to eat it. They may not like it, but they’ll try it.”
It’s a family affair
Lagasse says kids in the kitchen can be a pleasure. His grown daughters, Jessica and Jillie, spent time with him in the kitchen at home and in his restaurants while growing up, and have become foodies themselves.
“Once a month, I would take them, separately, to a restaurant they wanted to go to — not fast food,” he said. “We had daddy-daughter dates.”
His younger children, E.J., 3 1/2, and Meril, 2, are willing to taste almost anything. “They’re foodaholics. We’re so lucky.”
Lagasse notes that 25 years ago, American chefs were not respected in the world because the U.S. had no cuisine to call its own. “Now it’s like we’re on fire.”
That’s why he has written kids’ cookbooks that demand effort on their part. He wants them to rise to the occasion and summon their own food creativity.
“Who’s going to make (American cuisine) evolve if we’re not doing that?” he said.
Trends indicate a bright future, though, from a sizable children’s audience for Food Network programs to the boom in kid-oriented kitchen gear and classes. Lagasse recalled recently attending a 12-year-old’s birthday party and was pleasantly surprised at the theme.
“They had an Iron Chef party. It’s wild to me. But I say, hey, keep going.”
By Valerie Kuklenski, Staff Writer