Young chefs warm to creativity in kitchen

Ask Anthony Tabb, a casual 18-year-old Chicagoan with a bratwurst-thick accent, to tell you about a contest he almost didn't enter. The one where this part-time body-shop mechanic made beef tenderloin in wild-mushroom sauce, crab cakes, and a Caesar salad.

It turns out that he won, and was awarded full tuition (about $29,000) to the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago, where he'll study culinary arts, starting this fall. After his strong showing at the Art Institutes National High School Culinary Cook-Off in Atlanta, Tabb also took home a professional-quality stove and a complete set of stainless steel pots and pans, valued at approximately $1,500.

Tabb's interest in cooking was first inspired by his dad, a cook in the Marines, whom he watched prepare family meals on the weekends. He also used to enjoy watching his grandmother make steaming plates of gnocchi, which he'd devour.

Food professionals often voice concern that children like Tabb are few and far between, and that their busy schedules have left them little time to crack open a cookbook. Or that it's too easy to grab lunch from vending machines, which they say are as common as doughy teens. Those same teens often grumble that cooking is about as much fun as farm chores.

"Home cooking has always been considered drudgery," says Marion Cunningham, who revised "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" and has written several others, including "Cooking With Children" (Knopf, $24), in which she tells her young readers: "There is nothing like the deep sense of accomplishment you will feel when you share the food you've cooked with your family and friends."

In the introduction to "Cooking With Children," Ms. Cunningham explains what motivated her to write the book: "I feel strongly that cooking and eating together is a satisfaction that is rapidly disappearing from our lives. Teaching children how to cook, I think, is our greatest hope for recapturing what we have lost."

Once children have a taste of the sense of accomplishment that comes from sharing their own cooking, Cunningham says, they drop preconceived notions. "Children actually love to cook, even if they despise every mouthful of what they make. But they usually enjoy it because they made it."

Indeed, a 2001 Nickelodeon/Yankelovich Youth Monitor survey reveals some encouraging numbers: An average of 29 percent of children make their own dinner at times, with 7 percent of 6-to-8-year-olds and 44 percent of 12-to-17-year-olds fixing dinner themselves.

In the cooking classes she leads at a community center, Cunningham has seen children as young as 7 confidently whip up a meal. "They don't worry about consequences," she said in a phone interview, noting that even 3-year-olds can make a salad. "When I taught adults, it was exactly the opposite. No one could make anything; they were rigid with fear. Fear of failure, fear of not knowing, fear of the consequences."

Michael Repanshek knows a thing or two about cooking under pressure. The relaxed 12-year-old from Roswell, Ga., said it was just another day at the range when he cooked at the Pillsbury Kids' Bake-Off Contest national finals last June.

"My parents were more nervous than I was," he recalls. After testing his Orange Chip Chicken dish (see recipe at right) about 80 times before the contest, and stuffing his freezer full of it, who'd be nervous? His diligence paid off - to the tune of $10,000 and a first-place prize.

He's been cooking since he was 5, says Nancy, his mom. It's not uncommon, she adds, to come downstairs in the morning and find Michael making potatoes with onions, while a batch of muffins rises in the oven.

But when your family serves steak sandwiches for lunch and grinds its own hamburger meat (sometimes adding pork for flavor), it's no surprise that a fledgling James Beard emerges who can wow judges with his skill at creating a memorable citrus and fowl dish.

Repanshek rarely discusses his love of cooking with friends. "They think it's a girl thing," he says.

But he considers his favorite hobby quite liberating. "There's no one telling you what you have to do or how you have to do it," he says.

The kitchen, he adds, is a refuge for creativity. There, he pays more attention to his instincts and taste buds than to recipes.

Tabb can relate to that. "The main thing that attracted me was the artistic side of it," he says. "I like to eat good food, and I always watch the shows on TV." But, he says, "I don't like to follow other people's recipes. I usually end up changing something."

And after having developed a love of cooking while looking over his father's shoulder, Tabb charbroils stereotypes about men in the kitchen.

"On a Saturday," he says, "I might have a pretty good stock of ingredients at my house. If my ma just went shopping, then I'll make a pretty extravagant, not a three- or four-course meal, but a nice main dish. I'll give it two hours of my time and then sit down and enjoy it, usually by myself."

Experiences like these, says Cunningham, "give glue to who you are and where you're from." Without them, a love of home cooking is seldom cultivated, and children grow up eating "heat-and-eat, take-out foods prepared by strangers, and they become very fond of those tastes," she says.

Tabb recently impressed his girlfriend when he served her an appetizer of stir-fried chow mein and a main dish of grilled chicken breasts with plum marinade.

At the time, stereotypes about guys in the kitchen couldn't have been further from his mind. But he still tosses out a bit of advice to boys who are reluctant to don those apron strings: Stick with it, he says, because in high school and other cooking classes, where boys outnumber girls, you'll be in the majority. And, he adds: "Once you get older, a girl's going to love if you cook for them. And your wife will really love you for it."

Don't try to make finished cooks out of beginning cooks.

Don't give alternate steps unless absolutely necessary.

Don't give substitutions for ingredients.

It is important to advise children to be careful when handling knives and using heat, but too much repeated concern can make them timid.

Keep the cooking simple.

- From 'Cooking With Children: 15 Lessons for Children, Age 7 and Up, Who Really Want to Learn to Cook' (Knopf)

Michael Repanshek's Award-Winning Orange Chip Chicken

This dish won 12-year-old Michael Repanshek from Roswell, Ga., first place at the Pillsbury Kids' Bake-Off Contest National Finals last June.

'My parents were more nervous than I was,' recalls the enthusiastic young cook, who tested his winning recipe 80 times before it was presented to the judges.

1 egg, beaten

1/3 cup milk

1/2 cup Italian-style (or regular) bread crumbs

1/2 cup crushed potato chips

1/3 cup olive or vegetable oil

4 (4- to 5-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breast halves

1 large orange, cut into 6 round slices

3 tablespoons orange-blossom honey

1 tablespoon butter

In a medium bowl, combine egg and milk; mix thoroughly. In a shallow bowl, combine bread crumbs and potato chips; mix well. Dip chicken in egg mixture, then coat it with bread-crumb mixture.

Heat oil in 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add coated chicken and 4 of the orange slices to skillet. Cook 10 to 15 minutes or until chicken is fork-tender and juices run clear, turning chicken occasionally and gently pressing orange slices with a spoon or spatula to extract juice.

Remove orange slices from skillet. Add honey and butter, and reduce heat to low. Turn chicken twice to coat.

Serve garnished with remaining orange slices and rice or bread to absorb the sauce.

Serves 4.

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