A chip off the block: Cooking with dad

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Food and family go hand in hand, no matter who you are. But when you're a dad and a chef, too, sharing food with family — with your children, particularly — becomes something deeper.

It's normal, for instance, to teach them knife skills. Grace, the 7-year-old daughter of Chef Brian Alberg, director of food and beverage and executive chef at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Mass., has her own knife. It's made of sharp metal, but it's got rounded edges.

"She learned from an early age — on a plastic knife — how to cut," he said.

And it's important to lay out the basics. "I think they have a pretty good grasp of measurements," said Dan Hardy, executive chef with Starr Catering Group at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass. His daughters, Madeline, 8, and Amelia, 6 (almost 7!), have been helping measure ingredients since they were very young. It's easy to display the cups and spoons and explain "this much of this," Hardy said.

You're never too young to help out, at least at home. Oona, 20 months, is a kitchen courier.

"We ask her to assist with size-appropriate tasks, like handing us utensils or veggies from the fridge," said Daniel Drmacich-Flach, Oona's dad, chef and creator of Bon Tricycle, a food cart boasting bahn mi, brisket, cheese boards and more at Bright Ideas Brewing in North Adams, Mass., (sometimes, you'll find the cart on Spring Street in Williamstown, too).

"You have to be ready ... for your kitchen to become a little playroom," said Hardy. He thinks that you can start a toddler out as a young cook, too. Baking together can be "an explosion of fun-ness," he said — measuring flour is as much about measuring as it is about tactile stuff; getting to touch ingredients and knead dough is incredibly fun.

"The first thing [Grace] learned to do was make fresh pasta," said Alberg. Now, she understands concepts like sweet, salty, texture, presentation; she recently presented a dessert of peach halves filled with Cheerios.

"It's great to see her mind working," Alberg said.

The nurturing of taste buds also comes into play. "We have [Oona] taste everything!" said Drmachich-Flach. He and wife Jessika "believe it takes seven or eight times for a child's taste buds to become acquired. Our daughter has a taste for the savory — she loves sauteed mushrooms and leeks and often spreads herself tomato jam (that we carry at Bon Tricycle) on crostini."

Hardy's daughter Madeline had snails for the first time (to be fair, cooked traditionally with lots of garlic and butter), and she and Amelia both like when Hardy cooks anything off the grill, or anything with fruit. He's always pushing them to try different, new foods, he said: "it's part of my life. Naturally, they're a part of that."

Grace's favorite thing to cook with Alberg: Chicken feet, which he uses to thicken broth. Once, he remembers, she began clipping the nails on the feet — "it's all about keeping it fun in the kitchen," he said.

Cooking together is also about fostering skills and a love of food.

"Even a child watching someone prepare something simple like macaroni and cheese from scratch is connective," said Drmacich-Flach. "They see the process."

Even if your child doesn't become a chef, it's great to know one's way around a kitchen.

"In the long term, they're going to grow up being really good cooks," said Hardy. "I know a lot of adults that aren't comfortable in the kitchen — I think that's because the foundation was never set."


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