May-June 2021 | Food & Drink

Someone’s in the Kitchen

Cooped up at home for months, some kids turned into young chefs

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Three-year-old Shiloh Perez. Photo by Liz Lynch

Before the pandemic, Conner Derogatis got home late after sports practices, often scarfing down a hot dog for dinner as he sat by himself at the kitchen counter. While the 14-year-old had always liked to bake—usually relying on mixes—he didn’t have much time for it. But when school went remote, Conner was looking for things to do, particularly since he has severe asthma and needed to be extra careful not to catch COVID-19.

“Conner and I tried to learn the ukulele,” his mother, Michele, says. “That was a disaster.”

Instead, the Kensington ninth grader plunged into making meals and desserts from scratch, perfecting sushi, pasta, baguettes, waffles, buttercream-frosted cakes and ice cream. He cooked favorite restaurant dishes, including the crab dip with soft pretzel sticks from Quincy’s South Bar & Grille in Rockville, and a lemongrass green curry dish from The Cultured Pearl in Rehoboth Beach. The Derogatis family has been eating dinner together every night, with Conner in charge about twice a week. His 16-year-old brother, Max—who learned how to barbecue last summer from their dad, Jeff—fires up the grill for steak, chicken and shrimp. He’s become known as the “grill master” of the clan, while Conner is the “kitchen master,” taking over wine cubbies and a guest room closet to store his growing collection of utensils and equipment. Conner’s parents got him a KitchenAid stand mixer for Christmas.

Ninth-grader Conner Derogatis plunged into cooking when school went remote last year, making everything from homemade pasta to ice cream. Photo by Edgar Artiga

“You would have thought we got him a brand-new BMW, ” Michele says.

Most kids aren’t slicing sashimi or frying shrimp tempura like Conner. But while the quarantine craze of baking bread seems to have simmered, local school-age children are still cooking up a storm, making everything from schnitzel and tamales to triple-decker PB&Js and, yes, thanks to TikTok, supermodel Gigi Hadid’s spicy vodka pasta. The pandemic has upended family eating schedules and cooking responsibilities, with kids pitching in alongside parents or even taking over the kitchen themselves. Some are making dinner for their families for the first time. They’ve been taking cooking classes, combing the internet for trendy recipes, recreating bake-off competitions they’ve seen on TV—and frequently making a mess.

Photo by Edgar Artiga

For kids, time in the kitchen means time away from electronics—top on the wish list of many parents. Cooking has been a creative, unscripted project that’s filled a gap left by the cancellation of after-school sports and other activities. “Throughout the pandemic, cooking and food have really been the way we have found adventure and been able to explore,” says Michelle Maslov Forman of Kensington, who has two young children.

Some parents use recipes as a way to make school more fun. “My mom said that measuring water is math, reading ingredients is reading, and measuring water temperature so it’s not too hot is a science project,” says Hudson Avery, a third grader who lives in Chevy Chase. Hudson and his mother, Bryonie Byers, covered all those topics when they made focaccia. The first time they tried, the water was too hot and the yeast didn’t rise. The second time they used the wrong kind of flour. And the third time “it was perfect,” according to Hudson.

Rockville resident Carolyn Crow has used number recognition and other math concepts when baking with her two young sons. Crow, who was the pastry chef at the old Jackie’s Restaurant in Silver Spring, now coordinates cooking classes for the Casey Community Center in Gaithersburg and runs Black Bunny Bakery, a business operated from her home. When making bread with her boys—Calvin, 7, and Leo, 4—she’ll toss out things like, “We need 150 grams of flour and we have 100, so is 150 more or less?” Or she’ll teach fractions: “This is a whole cake. If we cut it into two parts, we’ll have halves; if we cut it in half again, we’ll have four parts of the whole cake.”

Some adults are realizing how proficient and independent children can be when it comes to cooking. “Parents do underestimate what kids can do in the kitchen,” says Susan Callahan, a former chef instructor at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore’s Shady Grove campus who also taught classes for kids at the now-defunct L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda. Since the pandemic started, the Silver Spring grandmother has shown her four grandsons—ages 6 to 13—how to make pretzels, meatballs and more during the two days a week she’s been taking care of them while their parents are at work. “We took turns dipping the hot dogs into the mix,” says Declan Callahan, 8, referring to their lesson on corn dogs. “That was the messiest food. It got all over the counter.”

Shiloh Perez, whose parents own Cielo Rojo restaurant in Takoma Park, helped her father, David, make tamales. They used corn husks filled with pumpkin, poblano peppers, feta and Oaxaca cheese. Photo by Liz Lynch

Three-year-old Shiloh Perez, whose parents own Cielo Rojo restaurant in Takoma Park, learned how to make tamales this past Thanksgiving. Tamales are popular during the holidays in Mexico, where Shiloh’s father, David Perez, grew up, and the same version Shiloh helped make—corn husks filled with pumpkin, poblano peppers, feta and Oaxaca cheese—was offered at the restaurant on Christmas Eve. “I taught her the folding part,” Perez says. “She’s really good with her hands.” Perez, the chef at Cielo Rojo, also lets Shiloh help with the eggs when they make breakfast together, but he’s drawn the line with making coffee. “Can I put in the hot water?” she’ll ask eagerly. “No, maybe later,” he tells her.

Perhaps the pandemic’s most significant impact on meals has been the preparation of breakfast—previously eaten on the run—and lunch, which used to be packed at home or purchased at school. Before COVID, Seth Ericson, a second grader who lives in Chevy Chase, remembers the hubbub and rush to leave at 8 a.m. “Before, we would wake up, dash into the car, realize we forgot something, go back home,” he says. Now, instead of having a granola bar, he makes buttermilk or chocolate chip pancakes from scratch, scrambled eggs, or pizzelles, the waffle-like Italian cookies. His mother, Ellen, says there was a big learning curve, but the two cooked side by side so Seth could learn how to crack an egg, scoop ingredients into measuring cups, and stir. “He doesn’t turn on the stove or flip the pancakes, so he doesn’t do it all yet,” she says.

Photo by Liz Lynch

Felicia Paul, an 11th grader who lives in Bethesda, used to grab something small as she ran out the door to school. While attending classes remotely, the 17-year-old has mastered acai bowls and homemade egg sandwiches, as well as “power balls,” a mixture of oats, peanut butter, flax and chia seeds, and honey. Friends have messaged her on Snapchat to tell her how good her food looks. Her healthier eating regimen has “definitely helped with my mental health,” Felicia says. “When I eat better, I’m more willing to do things like take a walk or get my schoolwork done.”

Early in the pandemic, after she moved past the “this is awful, we need to eat cookies every day” attitude, Maslov Forman had to deal with having less control over her kids’ lunches. When they brought lunch to school, she’d pack carrots, fruit, a cheese stick and other nutritious items. At home, they make it themselves. “Now I have frozen pizza or spring rolls for lunch,” says her daughter, Darby, 9. “They’re not exactly the healthiest.” Her mom says they’ve been working to get back on track with their meals. The kids’ “dip dinners,” which they prepare, include a range of homemade dips such as beans pureed with Mexican-style spices, smoked paprika and lime juice, and are served with toasted pita triangles and raw vegetables.

Many parents say it’s easier to get dinner ready these days because they aren’t hurrying home from work and their kids are sometimes bored and looking for activities. Thomas Wilan, 10, and his brother, Peter, 8, have helped their mom, Siobhan, more often since the pandemic began. The family organized an assembly line in their Chevy Chase kitchen last October to make butter chicken. Separate bowls with cut-up chicken, yogurt, flour and spices lined the counter, and the boys and their parents each had a task.

“Everyone’s roles have shifted,” says Heather Bruskin, the mother of Abby, 13, and Sawyer, 10. Pre-pandemic, the family couldn’t eat together every night as they contended with Sawyer’s swim practices and Abby’s play rehearsals. Now, with both parents working from their Kensington home and the kids attending school remotely, they eat all three meals together every day. “Everybody pitches in and helps,” Bruskin says. “The impact of our time together will last.”

Some students are returning to the classroom this spring, a relief for those who’ve found Zoom school challenging. When it comes to cooking, however, 13-year-old Maya Fritz says virtual learning is actually better. The Chevy Chase teen took a series of online classes from culinary teacher and cookbook author Paula Shoyer, and found that working independently with the equipment and appliances in her own kitchen gave her a sense of comfort and confidence. Shoyer asks students to point their computer cameras toward their hands so she can watch what they’re doing and comment, which Maya says was a huge help, particularly when it came to learning how to chop properly. Since the classes require participation rather than just observation, it’s easier for Maya to recreate the dishes she made, such as black bean chili and chicken shawarma. Shoyer, a Chevy Chase resident who taught 110 virtual cooking classes in 2020, mostly to children, doesn’t see the popular trend disappearing. After the pandemic, “no parents will drag their kids to another person’s house” for a lesson on how to prepare dinner, says Shoyer, whose afternoon classes result in a full-course meal for students and their families, made and served right at home.

That convenience hasn’t escaped Julia Gordon, who says the time her daughter, Rochelle Berman, 17, spent at Shoyer’s virtual camp in August “was the most glorious week of my summer. We were having restaurant-quality meals every night produced in my own kitchen by my own offspring.” The Silver Spring teen is still making some of those dishes, including the chicken schnitzel. “It’s one of the new fan favorites in the house,” Rochelle says.

The Gallun family is enjoying the perks of son Ezra’s online French baking classes. The eighth grader from Kensington has been learning since second grade how to make baguettes, brioche, madeleines, cream puffs and other confections from La Boulangerie, a culinary program offered in French by Silver Spring resident Asmae Otmani. Ezra used to take classes at his teacher’s house, but now they’re on Zoom, with Otmani sometimes leading students in French songs as they bake. “The beauty of this is that we get to taste everything,” says Ezra’s mother, Sara Rosen Gallun. “When he went to class, they ate it all.”

Nine-year-old Yousuf Ahmad, pictured in his family’s Bethesda kitchen, enjoyed cooking even before the pandemic. He specializes in French toast and lasagna. Photo by Liz Lynch

Wearing a red apron with a penguin on it, 9-year-old Yousuf Ahmad of Bethesda made chicken tortilla soup with about 30 other people during a Zoom call in January. It wasn’t the first time (or the last) that Yousuf joined the group of mostly women to cook for KindWorks, a Bethesda nonprofit that mobilizes volunteers to engage in kind acts. For this project, which started during the pandemic and is called KindSoup for the Soul, volunteers make a big batch of soup together every Saturday from a recipe posted in advance. They cook enough for themselves and plenty more to freeze and drop off at food assistance providers in Montgomery County (and one in Reston, Virginia). Yousuf, who often makes himself grilled cheese or a tuna melt for lunch, chatted with the group as he sauteed onions, garlic and red and green bell peppers, asking them to name their signature dishes. He told them he specializes in French toast and lasagna.

Yousuf’s mother, Amina Chaudary, says her son’s passion for cooking is “a well understood fact in our extended family,” and that he’s “quite the humanitarian at heart, and a softie.” He baked a two-layer chocolate ganache cake for his 3-year-old brother’s birthday. As for the soup, Yousuf says, “I like making it because it helps people who need food.”

Photo by Liz Lynch

For 14-year-old Clint Hensley, who’d already been to two cooking camps before COVID arrived, birria tacos became a monthslong pursuit. The extra time at home gave him a chance to build on his skills. “It was definitely a little much,” the Silver Spring teen says of the effort he put into making (and eating) the braised beef tacos served with consommé. Clint first tasted them back in the fall, when he got takeout from Little Miner Taco at The Block Foodhall in North Bethesda. After recipes for birria tacos started circulating online, Clint decided to make them from scratch, choosing the version trending on TikTok. On a Saturday in January, his mother, Lisa Sanders, drove him to the Megamart in Takoma Park to buy three types of chiles (guajillo, ancho and de arbol) and other ingredients. Shortly before getting to the store, they got a flat tire. It was dark outside when they finished changing it, but they continued on anyway.

“I didn’t want to give up at that point. We were too invested to not do it,” Clint says. He tackled the recipe, which took more than four hours, including slow-cooking the chuck roast and pureeing and straining ingredients to make the consommé. The results were not “picture perfect,” he says, but despite it all, he would “definitely” make the tacos again.

Then there are the Grumet sisters—Noa, 14, and Maya, 12. The animated duo always liked to bake, but the pandemic jump-started their interest like instant yeast. Doughnuts, profiteroles, cheesecake, tiramisu and Nutella-filled crepes are among the projects they undertook in their Silver Spring home. They signed up for an online cake decorating class—learning how to make icing flowers—and have accumulated more than 75 piping tips. Noa, who attended a macaron baking class in Paris a couple of years ago, used her time at home to perfect the meringue cookies. The teens’ neighbors are often the beneficiaries of their work. “They have to bake multiple times a week,” says their mother, Julie Grumet. “I like it for downtime—and to keep them off electronics—but at the same time, nobody wants to eat that much cake.”

The girls pulled out all the stops by holding Nailed It! competitions against each other, reenacting the Netflix baking show in which contestants face off with elaborate confections. In one of the contests, Noa and Maya each created a barbecue grill topped with corn on the cob, hot dogs and hamburgers—made entirely out of cake. Their mom invited a bunch of her friends to “judge” the cakes on a Zoom call, but they didn’t declare a winner. “It took us six hours to bake the cakes and three days to clean up,” Maya says.

Indeed, when it comes to the kitchen floor, Grumet says, “there’s a layer of confectioners sugar in my grout that will never go away.”

Carole Sugarman is a contributing editor of Bethesda Magazine and a longtime food writer.