My son releases the chef within

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Spencer greeted me as I pulled into the driveway, his friend Tom standing beside him. I'd been expecting to see him painting the house, as per instructions, but I have grown accustomed to such discrepancies. He will be a college freshman in September and these are his final, halcyon days prior to The Onset – days of freedom too precious to be complicated with painting chores.

But cooking is not a chore.

"Can you watch the pot on the stove?" he said. "I have some dulce de leche boiling."

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Since I only knew for certain that he had mispronounced dulce, I bit. "What's that for?"

"I'm making caramelized dulce de leche crepes. This is the preparation," he said matter-of-factly. Tom looked on blankly.

"Are you following a recipe?" I asked, fearing a kitchen-altering meltdown should the leche go critical.

He identified the cookbook source of his plan, and then explained how the two cans of condensed milk in the pot needed to boil for three hours (I would be their steward for the last two hours), then cooled, then opened. The result would be caramelized dulce de leche. Yum, I guess.

"I'll make the crepes with this tomorrow night." He described how he would roll peaches and kiwi fruit, saturated with his caramelized leche, in a crepe and lightly sugar it. Yes, yum.

He took me inside to the kitchen, explained how to keep the boiling water at the appropriate level, "at least two inches of water above the cans," – and then he and Tom took off. They were going to get the alignment repaired on Tom's car.

I have known for some time that we had entered a new phase of Spencer's gastronomy. A few weeks ago, I came home to find the gourmet dessert cookbook opened to a page headed: "Chocolate Phantasmagoria." Spencer was at it again, baking things he can't pronounce.

"Chocolate Phantasmagoria" conjured two visions: an opulent, decadent dessert with ribbons of dense dark frosting and shaved chocolate, and the kitchen sink piled high with measuring bowls, double boilers, mixer attachments, and utensils. Spencer's second law of cooking: "Every kitchen gadget that can possibly contribute to a project, will be used on that project," predicts the state of the sink.

Spencer's first law of cooking states that one must always choose the most exotic, complex, delectable-looking dessert in the book. And his third law predicts that his family will be willing to live with first and second laws because the end result will be worth it. Often, however, he assumes the third law on faith alone.

It has been many years since Spencer was content with mere baking. Even as an 8-year-old chef, he saw a recipe as a suggestion in need of inspiration and improvement based on locally available ingredients – or expensive items in those very small, exotically labeled jars and bottles from foreign countries.

Now that he drives a car, and often spends his own money on ingredients, one may predict the availability of those jars and bottles. How many 19-year-olds do you know who will spend their own money on a fluted flan pan, toasted sesame oil, or the cookbook "Blue Ginger: East Meets West Cooking With Ming Tsai"?

We've had the benefit of some wonderful repasts this year alone: pad thai with lime-garlic-peanut sauce; penne alla carbonara; and cakes, flans, and confections too numerous to mention. Spencer even bakes baklava for school field trips.

He has gained support from his cohort. A few weeks ago, I observed Spencer, Tom, and Josh laboring over a bowl of muddy glop in our kitchen. This crew looked better suited to rotating the tires on Tom's car, but here they were concocting a marinade for the beef that Tom had supplied from his family's freezer.

The plan was to stir-fry over an open fire, smothering the beef in onions, diced peppers, and mushrooms. In went ketchup, pepper, olive oil, chopped garlic, hot sauce, salt, brown sugar, and the contents of a dozen small bottles with exotic labels. Then in went the beef to steep.

An hour later, Spencer delivered a sample straight from the fire pit. It was tender, seared, piquant. Worthy of Ming Tsai. At his age, I was content with hot dogs that hadn't fallen through the grill and into the coals.

The house'll get painted. "Honest, Dad." But how many parents can say the paint job has stalled due to dulce de leche crepes? Too precious, indeed.

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