Fanae Aaron has been a set designer for movies like Being John Malkovich, a model maker for films like Fight Club and a draftsperson for the cult film Memento. A dramatic role the movie-industry veteran wasn't quite sure how to fill? Chief cook and nutritionist for her young son Cody.
"When my son was born, I was an older mom," she said by phone from her home in the Hollywood Hills. "I guess we think differently, are a bit more studied. When it came time to feed Cody solid food, I knew there was a right way, but I didn't know what that was. I figured professional chefs would have good strategies for feeding their kids."
Thus, the idea for What Chefs Feed Their Kids was born. It has been a long ride, Cody now 5 1/2 and the book just published Nov. 8 by Globe Pequot Press. Aaron tracked down eminent chefs around the country, talking to them about what, and how, they feed their own children. The resulting book is a compendium of recipes, tips and strategies organized by age. Recognizing that babies eat differently from toddlers and from tweens, Aaron chose to divide it into sections: 0-1 infancy; 1-2 1/2 after purees; 2 1/2-5 preschoolers; 5-8 big kids; and 8-11 adolescence.
But the real brilliance of the book is the chefs she managed to entice into the project. She assembled the likes of Boston's Barbara Lynch, New York's Marc Murphy, Piero Selvaggio of Valentino fame and two of the Tampa Bay area's own treasures: BT Nguyen of Restaurant BT and Zack Gross of Z Grille.
"I wanted to find chefs from around the country who were dedicated to feeding their kids and who were insightful. I was looking for chefs with different parenting styles and different backgrounds," Aaron says of her choices. Of Nguyen and Gross, she has more specific praise.
"Zack is so great with his daughter, Zen. He keeps it lighthearted and focuses on cooking together as a bonding experience. BT's kids are a little bit older. She talks about how an infant's palate is very pure, and that teaching her kids about food was a way to enable them to make better choices when they got older. BT's daughter, Trina, 16, is a 'foodie' and now acts as a bridge with her friends to this foodie world."
Nguyen, who contributed a number of recipes to the book including Vietnamese shaken beef and lemongrass risotto, has strong opinions about how to acclimate kids to new foods. Her kids don't eat fast food, and for years she brought them hot lunch at school most days.
"Never give kids limitations, never be afraid to introduce them to new things. My secret word to my kids is 'try.' My son, James, who is 9, is a little more timid, but he'll always try — he can spit it out. Never push, but encourage."
Gross, who contributed straight-up kid-friendly recipes like strawberry pancakes and hot dogs with homemade relish, feeds his daughter four evenings a week while his wife oversees the restaurant. In preschool, 4-year-old Zen has entered a "pickier," impressionable stage, so Gross and his wife are careful about expressing their food dislikes around her. Still, Gross tries not to get hung up on "good" foods and "bad" foods. The only off-limit food for Zen? Soda, because, as Gross says, "it's so addictive."
In fact, according to Aaron, this sense of "no limits" may be a defining credo among chef parents. In researching the book, the author found that chefs' children are more willing to try different things, the result of having parents who routinely throw open the whole pantry.
"Chefs don't say to themselves, 'Oh, I'm eating with kids, so it's mac 'n' cheese,' " says Aaron. "It has been surprising what kids choose to eat when you don't restrict them."
Still, Gross' best advice is not to beat yourself up too much if a kid prefers the allures of popcorn, chocolate and cotton candy.
"Everything in moderation," the James Beard-nominated chef says casually. "Sure, I want her to be as adventurous as possible. But you can only be a little kid once."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293.