Are they born with a discerning palate?
Or are the children of local chefs
just luckier than other kids?
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JULIE CAHILL AND CRYSTAL BIRNS
It’s back-to-school season, which means it’s back to lunch packing as well. We all have our own strategies and opinions when it comes to whipping up that school lunch day after day after day after day. And that is just one small part of the kid + food equation—a demanding and ever-evolving issue. The conundrum of what to prepare for kids also pertains to chefs, who, despite their expertise in the kitchen, have the additional burden of usually being at work during mealtimes. We spoke with several local chefs who have kids, to find out what really goes on in their home kitchens and happily scribbled down their favorite kid-friendly recipes.
Photo by Julie Cahill
We find if he is cooking, he stays out of mischief
An adorable 4-year-old named Mateo is the son of chef Santos Majano, who helms The Kitchen at Discretion Brewing after a long career working in fine dining establishments such as Cyrus in Healdsburg and Soif in Santa Cruz. Like many kids in that age range, Mateo is “strong willed and the joy of our lives,” says Majano. He and his wife, Laura, use cooking as a way to keep their bundle of energy engaged. “Mateo is obsessed with making this base of garlic, onions and cumin in the food processor. We use it in beans, rice, soups, sauces…now, because he enjoys it so much, it is the start of most meals. We find if he is cooking, he stays out of mischief, so whatever we make, he has a job and is right there with us,” Majano says.
Perhaps due to Mateo’s involvement in the kitchen, he doesn’t make much of a fuss about trying new foods. Any parent can talk at length about how challenging mealtime can be. To avoid pickiness, some folks swear by starting at a young age with a simple technique that Majano and his wife employ. “We just keep putting it on the plate. He surprises us often,” he says.
You’ll regularly find the little family of three out at the farmers’ market, picking up food to grill at home, as well as ingredients for the restaurant. Majano says, “Going to the farmers’ market is a big ritual for us. It is a great part of work that the family can be involved in.”
Photo by Julie Cahill
The accomplished chef at La Posta in Santa Cruz and mom to 4-year-old twins Eli and Mena, Katherine Stern admits that, like many of her counterparts, she doesn’t actually cook much at home. “Due to the schedule of a chef and the hours that includes, I’m not home every night for dinner. When I’m working nights, my husband does dinner and all nighttime routines,” she explains. And while that may mean the kids get a fish stick or two on occasion, as any dad with his hands full would admit, the parents try to incorporate fresh vegetables and fruits into every meal as much as possible.
Stern says, “When the kids were babies, they weren’t super picky. They loved liver and Brussels sprouts and pretty much everything you put in front of them. As they got older and started to resist eating vegetables, it was frustrating that I was constantly throwing meals away. Our pediatrician urged us to keep offering the veggies, making them familiar with what we eat as a family in hopes that one day they would give them a try. We began to have more success once we put everything on the table ‘family style’ and everyone helped themselves to what they wanted. The kids loved the independence it gave them, and making their own choices meant more was tried.”
However, that democratic dinnertime format “has led to making extremely simple meals of meat and veg to avoid the rejection of an entire meal…our pre-children meals of curries, stews, hearty soups are gone for now,” Stern says.
But the twins are still restaurant kids, which is the reality of having a chef mom. Stern says, “We’ve continued to eat out since having kids. They went to their first restaurant at two weeks old. Of course, we choose carefully and go early, but it’s relatively successful…as long as there is ice cream.”
Since she is usually at home in the morning, Stern and the twins often make pancakes and waffles together. She likes to let them help crack eggs and measure dry ingredients. “They help stir the batter,” she says, “but I often take over. The chef in me doesn’t want them over-mixed.”
Photos by Crystal Birns
The restaurant Home in Soquel is, by intention, a home away from home for the self-described “tribe” behind it. When chef Brad Briske and his wife, Linda Ritten, set about launching this project in 2016, it was certainly not alone. Linda’s sister Sanra Ritten and her husband Diego Felix, who take their creative food expositions on the road and across continents via Colectivo Felix, moved to town to help open the restaurant.
Both couples have two kids. The Briske girls are Lola (7) and Inka (3), and the Felix boys are Elias (7) and Benicio (4). Needless to say, this is a busy clan. The kids’ granddad, whom they call Big G, came up from San Diego to help out through the opening months of Home. “He will watch the kids a lot if we have to work, which is pretty amazing for a grandparent to watch four kids under seven all together. And he will watch them for long 10–12 hour shifts, so he does lunch, dinner, bedtime, etc. All our friends with kids are envious of Big G,” Ritten says.
“They are restaurant kids. They hang out,” says Briske. Both of his girls were born while he was at the height of a busy cooking career, which means they are not used to a regular nine-to-five kind of lifestyle. Plus, they eat a lot of incredible food. When asked what a typical weekday menu is for the family, Briske says, “I can’t even answer that because I’m here (at the restaurant) all day long. Today on my day off (Monday), we had waffles, fried chicken, lots of snacks. Then we’ll go out to dinner, somewhere fancy and have more restaurant food. But even on a day off, we are here making snacks, cleaning up. We eat a lot of restaurant food, leftovers, ragus, steak, chicken, clams, octopus.”
Being exposed to this level of cuisine, the picky issue has never played out much for the girls. “Not really ever had to handle it,” says Briske. He attributes that to the fact that they have been very involved in the entire cooking process for their whole lives. That’s why Inka’s favorite dish is squid ink pasta with clams while Lola loves gnocchi with octopus and tomato sauce.
Over at the Felix household, the day-to-day is a little more simplified. “A typical weekday menu consists of brown rice, broccoli or cauliflower,” Felix says. “Both my boys love soy sauce and nutritional yeast on everything. Elias also loves inari and sushi and so his brother eats those just to copy him. When we have Argentine friends over, we do ‘Californian Asados,’ lots of grilled meat, vegetables and salads.” And while the family doesn’t go out to eat very much, the boys do enjoy the bento box at Akira quite a bit.
On the occasional Sunday, Home has begun doing special events in its beautiful backyard garden space. The vibe is a bit more casual, and “free-range kids” can run wild, says Briske.
Photo by Julie Cahill
Another busy chef whose partner takes the kitchen reins while she’s at work is Angela Tamura, chef de cuisine since 2010 of Pèppoli at Pebble Beach. She is mother to Maya (12), nicknamed “The Bear,” who loves her cat and her chickens, and to Lucas (7), nicknamed “The Duke,” who loves learning facts about sea creatures, lizards and bugs and loves to read late into the night.
The two kids have always had different approaches to food. Maya has always tried anything new, and is more adventurous with food while Lucas is “my picky eater,” says Tamura. As some of us know too well, the couple found themselves cooking specifically to please Duke’s limited palate, just to ensure that he would eat. But now, “As he is getting older we are trying to expand his horizons and have him try new things,” Tamura says.
Typical weekday fare tends to be a lot of husband-made veggie and tofu stir-fries from the family’s weekly CSA box or roast chicken and rice. But on weekends they take more time with meals, cooking up soups with homemade ciabatta bread, grilled salmon, homemade pasta, or slow-roasted pork in their Big Green Egg barbecue cooker. In terms of dining out, Tamura says, “We do not eat out very much at all, but like trying new things when we are on our yearly roadie.”
Chefs really have to rely on their spouses
and families for meals in daily life
Culinary director of the soon-to-open Alta Bakery + Cafe and Cella Restaurant in the historic Cooper-Molera Adobe in Monterey, Ben Spungin says that from the time his two daughters were young, “their personalities were like salt and pepper,” a fitting way for someone in the food industry to describe his kids. Briar (12) is a self-decided pescatarian while Emilu (14) is a budding chef herself. Spungin and his wife Kouri are busy people, as one would assume for a father running a new restaurant and a mother who commutes to work in Big Sur everyday. Spungin echoes a sentiment not uncommon among others in his field, “As you can imagine, chefs put in a lot of hours to cook for the masses. Chefs really have to rely on their spouses and families for meals in daily life. We usually plan easier meals during the week due to homework and Kouri driving from Big Sur after work.”
But even when the girls were young, their parents never catered to the potential for picky eating. The family always ate the same foods on the table, which explains why the kids got used to eating vegetables. Not to mention attending the progressive Esalen “Gazebo” preschool, which influenced them early on with its garden-based, environmental education.
On his rare days off, Spungin still likes to create food for the family. He says, “I’ll cook a simple fresh meal for everyone. It’s more to give an evening off to Kouri and the girls.” When asked what the girls request most on those special days, he says, “Believe it or not, they love my Brussels sprouts…and all things dessert.”