Last Christmas, Maegan Carlson was one happy teenager. • A gleaming KitchenAid mixer, a must-have for every serious cook, even one who can't yet vote, had her name on it. Now she could really get down to business baking the Lemon Bars and other sweets she's getting a rep for. • Too bad the 17-year-old didn't have the swanky standup mixer at Thanksgiving. It would have come in handy when she made the big feast. You read that right. Maegan prepared turkey and all the trimmings for her family. • Maegan, a junior at Shorecrest Preparatory School who lives in St. Petersburg, is among a growing legion of kids at home in the kitchen and eager to sign up for cooking classes and high school culinary programs. They are inspired by family first, it seems. If not Mom, then Grandma or another favorite relative. Like any young person turned on by a subject, they find kindred spirits on TV and online, in school and magazines. • On any given day around Tampa Bay, you can find young people making dinner for the family or practicing chopping skills in a classroom or after-school camp. True devotees lap up the kitchen science madness of the Food Network's Alton Brown and the creepy eating habits of Andrew Zimmern on the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods. They've got favorite recipe Web sites, among them recipezaar.com, cooking.com and epicurious.com. Yellow stickies mark the recipes they want to try in magazines and cookbooks. Some even have subscriptions to Southern Living and Cooking Light. • They don't necessarily want careers in the culinary field; they just love to cook. • In the past few weeks, we hung out with three groups of young cooks while they sliced, sauteed and stirred. Here are their stories.
Let them cook
The grade school trio gathered around the big chopping block table at Let Them Eat Cake, a bakery and cooking school in South Tampa, has taken more than 70 cooking classes here. They are wild about the french fries and "phenomenal" chicken fingers they made in a past class. Today's skills course is all about vegetables, and the star is ratatouille, a dish they know because of the animated movie of the same name.
"We've got all our mise en place in place for our dish so we're ready to go," says chef and instructor Jason Lucas. His soft voice and patient manner will definitely be needed over the next few hours. These are, after all, children, albeit children who know the meaning of French cooking terms.
Kayley Guyette, 9, and Max Mezrah, 9, and his sister, Samantha, 7, all of Tampa, settle into a familiar routine. Their hands are washed, and baseball caps wrangle hair. They begin chopping zucchini, sweet red peppers, eggplant, tomatoes and onions for the ratatouille. A pile of farm-fresh Florida corn distracts the group a bit. Everyone wants to pull off the husks and feel the silky threads.
The threesome is soon joined by three more: 6-year-old kindergarteners Cullen Strady and twins Will and George Cavo, also of Tampa. They climb up on stools, adult-sized aprons wrapped around them nearly twice, and Lucas instructs how to scoop the seeds and guts out of halved winter squashes. The seeds will be salted, roasted and nibbled for snacks. They also snap the ends off green beans and learn to blanch and shock them in ice to halt cooking.
Some like the vegetable feast more than others. Kayley is a vegetarian (she wants to be a zookeeper) who isn't so wild about eggplant. One of the twins asks for seconds on the spaghetti squash. And everyone eats corn until it's gone.
"We like it here because the food is always really fresh and we get to try things we've never had," Kayley says.
Alton Brown made Janessa Vigil, 17, fall in love with cooking. The Largo teen wanted to be a doctor, but the spiky-haired TV food scientist convinced her to trade scalpel for chef's knife. She's a senior at Osceola High School and is on the school's competitive culinary team.
She has a job at a soon-to-open Pete & Shorty's in Pinellas County and an eye on culinary school. Maybe Johnson & Wales in Miami. "I'm really into it," Janessa says.
One day last week, the advanced class divided into groups to make Cottage Pie, sauteed ground beef and mixed vegetables baked with a cheesy mashed potato topping.
Janessa, Ruth Martinez, 18, of Largo, and Joshua Packard, 15, of Pinellas Park, stop stirring long enough to talk about their passion for food. Ruth's specialty is Mexican cuisine, which she learned from her mother. "All our recipes are handed down from family," she says.
Joshua's mom taught him to make the Polish dishes of her heritage. Both students want to attend culinary school and eventually work as chefs.
Joshua claims to not be much of a reader, so magazines and cookbooks don't interest him. He's a thoroughly modern cook who listens to cooking podcasts and downloads recipes from the Internet.
With what they know about food, Cottage Pie is child's play. Pizza dough from scratch? That's more like it.
Classmates in the kitchen
At 18, Kate Cherven is an accomplished cook, but still she must lean on someone of age to buy certain ingredients. Like Kahlua for a special bread pudding or beer for a long-cooked stew.
When a grocery store checker carded her for the miniature bottle of liqueur, she agreeably handed over her driver's license. Denied the Kahlua, she had to put off her cooking project.
Such is the plight of an underage gourmet cook. Kate, a senior at Shorecrest, is president of the Cooking Club. Her junior buddy Maegan Carlson, the one with the KitchenAid, will be president next year. The club doesn't exactly cook, not at school anyway. The members meet every Monday and share a themed potluck lunch, usually global in nature. One week, a classmate's mother made an entire Korean meal.
On this day, Kate and Maegan are in the kitchen of Kate's Largo home making lunch and talking about their passions. Kate is the cook — though she is widely known for her birthday cakes — and Maegan's the baker.
"It's fun to experiment with different things," Maegan says as she's stirring the batter for Lemon Bars. "Plus, baking is a way to relieve stress." Yeah, Kate agrees, cooking is a good way to relax. She shows off a copy of her favorite cookbook, Hungry Girl, by Lisa Lillen. A half-dozen pages are marked with stickies; all recipes she wants to make.
Sandee Cherven, Kate's mother, putters around the kitchen while the Spring Salad With Chicken is being prepared. Mixed greens will be studded with strawberries, blueberries, feta cheese and candied pecans and then topped with sliced chicken and lapped with a poppy seed dressing. No recipe; Kate eyeballs everything.
"We all benefit from their curiosity and interest," Mrs. Cherven says with a wry smile. She admits to not being much of a cook and is nothing but grateful that her youngest daughter is such a devoted foodie. Plus, she does the grocery shopping.
"That way I can buy what I want to cook," Kate says.
Do the friends have a future in the culinary world?
Maegan is thinking about being a pastry chef. Or an interior designer. Or a forensic scientist. She is working on Baking for Badges, a cookbook that will raise money for underprivileged kids in Girl Scouts. The book is part of her project to earn her Gold Award. Kate is considering the writer's life — plays, novels, movie scripts.
And she wants a food processor. Pink, please, in support of breast cancer research. After all, Maegan already has her fancy mixer.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.