By Shaun Dreisbach
From ridiculously talented teen chefs to a new crop of young food fanatics, the culinary world is getting cooler every day.
"It's the perfect cooking storm." That's how celebrity chef and Chopped judge Alex Guarnaschelli describes the whirlwind of events that's created our growing national obsession with food. Good food. And right now teens are square in the eye of that storm. "They know a tremendous amount about cooking these days," says Guarnaschelli, who was also a judge on this summer's Chopped Teen Tournament. "And there's been a real change in the perception of how early you can start."
Today it's not much more than a distant memory, but there was a time when food preparation was seen as a chore instead of a cool career path -- home cooks and professional chefs alike often slogged away in the kitchen unseen. But the sudden popularity of the Food Network in the aughts launched a revolution, lending foodies rock-star status and casting the culinary arts in a whole new light. "As a kid I'd watch the Food Network instead of cartoons," says Alexander Weiss, 14, who won Fox's MasterChef Junior competition last fall. "And now there are so many shows featuring teens in the kitchen, inspiring others to try it at younger and younger ages. I have kids approach me on the street and tell me they're cooking now because of it, or that they tried rabbit at a restaurant when they never would have before."
At the same time, the internet has made it possible for those of us without foodie parents -- or an Italian grandmother -- to master the art of wielding a chef's knife, making fresh pasta and whipping up perfectly silky panna cotta. "It changed everything. The web created this vast source of knowledge and made cooking a lot more accessible. A decade ago, if you wanted to learn how to sous vide something, you had to go work in a chef's kitchen. Now you can learn it from YouTube," says 15-year-old chef Flynn McGarry. "The internet also created a way to showcase what you're doing and put it out into the world and have people notice."
To wit, social media has pushed our collective food fixation over the edge. "With Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest, now everyone is posting food pictures all the time, whether it's something they made or a beautiful restaurant dish," says chef and cookbook author Eliana de Las Casas, 14. "We want to share whatever is exciting and trendy -- the Cronut, a Ramen Burger or a cool new food truck. And there is always something new." Adds 16-year-old chef and food blogger Romilly Newman, who was the youngest-ever Chopped contestant when she competed on the show: "Twitter is a great place to stay informed about what other chefs are doing and what's exciting in the culinary world." Plus, the quality of food these days -- even from "quick service" spots like Shake Shack -- is so elevated that it's no wonder we're snapping up a storm. "In a way, social media has been taken over by food," Flynn says. Search #foodie on Instagram, for example, and you'll see more than 10.4 million posts.
The result of all this is not only a generation of teens who are more knowledgeable about food and care more about what they're putting in their bodies than ever before -- it's also given rise to a crop of incredibly talented young chefs, the majority of whom are largely self-taught and have already reached a level of success and celebrity that many adult chefs never do. Take Flynn: He learned how to cook at age 10 and, less than two years later, began hosting what became a $160-a-person, multicourse supper club at his house in Los Angeles, serving dishes he created (and even sketched out to see how they'd look on the plate), like pumpkin blini with apple cider gelée and fried sage, and slow-poached octopus in winter spices with grilled grape juice. Flynn even convinced his mom to let him turn his bedroom into a full-fledged, professional-quality kitchen, "like a mini version of what I aspired to work in one day -- only with a foldaway bed for me to sleep in," he says. "At one point, I was doing dinners where 800 plates were coming out of my bedroom." After interning at restaurants including New York City's famed Eleven Madison Park, Flynn has gone on to score a New York Times Magazine cover story and a paying five-day-a-week gig at Alma, one of the hottest restaurants in Los Angeles. (He's being homeschooled.)
19-year-old Greg Grossman also fast-forwarded over culinary school -- and a decade or two of slowly working his way up the ladder. He started hanging out in restaurants and assisting in food prep when he was 8, and at 13 he became the youngest chef ever to be invited to work in the kitchen at Alinea, the beyond-progressive, three-Michelin-star Chicago restaurant where tweezers are essential plating tools and diners sit down to deliciously meticulous 18-course meals. This past summer Greg snagged a job as executive chef at Georgica in the Hamptons, overseeing a kitchen staff of 10 and turning out dishes like fried Blue Point oyster "fish-and-chips" with potato-chip mousse and truffle-shallot marmalade.
Even the pros are awed. "There's a freshness to the approach of teen chefs. They're lighthearted and they're not afraid to take risks," Guarnaschelli says. That appreciation is part of the reason a growing number of young cooks are being so readily welcomed into restaurant kitchens. "It is insane what some of them can do -- not to mention the drive and career savvy they have," says Roger Levine, an assistant professor of culinary arts and management at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh. "I have students right now who have their own food trucks or are about to launch a catering business."
What drew 13-year-old Haile Thomas to cooking was not so much haute cuisine but health. Six years ago, when she was just 7, her father was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes -- a life-changing event for himself and for Haile. "It was like someone screaming in my face, 'We need to change the way we eat!'" she says. So they did. Haile took all the family's favorite recipes and figured out how to switch the unhealthy ingredients for better ones. "You get used to eating fatty, salty, cheesy foods -- but when you learn what they're doing to the inside of you, it's really scary," she says. Not only was her father's diabetes reversed after they began eating better, but Haile knew she had found her calling. At 9 she launched Kids Can Cook, a popular YouTube video series, with the goal of using her healthy foodie skills to inspire others. Her talent has also caught the eye of one particularly powerful person: none other than First Lady Michelle Obama, who invited Haile to sit with her at last year's State of the Union address as a representative of the Let's Move! initiative.
Eliana -- who spent the last few months developing and testing recipes for her fourth cookbook -- is passionate about fresh, local, good-for-you food as well. "It's so empowering to be able to take a bunch of ingredients and make something wonderful out of them," she says. "And I love that age really isn't a factor in cooking. It's not like dreaming about being a doctor and then having to wait forever to realize that dream. You can do it now."
If that's not incentive for you to apron up, maybe this is: "When I got into cooking, my mom and I made a deal," Romilly says. "I'll make dinner every night -- but afterward she has to do all the dishes."
Meet the Chefs:
Flynn McGarry, age 15
Claim to fame: Starting a supper club at age 12
First foodie moment: "I got the French Laundry Cookbook and read through the entire thing [336 pages!] in one night. It just blew my mind. This was what I wanted to do."
Romilly Newman, age 16
Claim to fame: Being one of the youngest-ever competitors on Chopped
Favorite thing about food: "It's a great way to express yourself and be creative. It says a lot about you, and it's fun."
Greg Grossman, age 19
Claim to fame: Working as executive chef at East Hampton's Georgica restaurant
Best advice for burgeoning foodies: "Get in the trenches. Bother enough chefs who are more skilled than you to let you into their kitchens so you can learn."
Eliana de Las Casas, age 14
Claim to fame: Hosting a web radio show called Cool Kids Cook
First foodie moment: "When I realized that every birthday and Christmas I'd ask for something related to the kitchen. I'm like, 'Can I have a meat grinder?'"
Alexander Weiss, age 14
Claim to fame: Winning the first-ever MasterChef Junior competition
Best advice for burgeoning foodies: "Get creative. If it doesn't work out, that's OK. I made a lot of failed soufflés before I finally got it."
Haile Thomas, age 13
Claim to fame: Being asked by First Lady Michelle Obama to represent the Let's Move! campaign and having a recipe she created served at the White House
Signature dish: Zushi, AKA zucchini sushi: strips of the veggie rolled up with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and thyme
So, are you a foodie? Do you aspire to be a chef like these teens? Tell us in the comments!