How many 5th graders do you know who wonder what to do with orange marmalade languishing in the refrigerator, decide to mix it with some brown sugar, soy sauce, olive oil, and garlic and use it as a sauce to accompany braised cod for the family dinner? Exactly.
I bumped into Sam Siegel, a former student of mine, at the farmers’ market on Sunday. When Sam was in second grade at Malcolm X School in Berkeley, he signed up for all my after school cooking classes. Sam was keen as mustard to try every tool, technique, and recipe that came his way. It was obvious, even then, that he was passionate about food.
I lost touch with Sam, now 10, when he switched schools a year ago (he’s in the same grade as my son). But at a stall selling his holiday cookies I learned what’s been cooking lately on the edible and entrepreneurial front for this earnest young chef.
Sam is active in the Sprouts Cooking Club, which takes children into real restaurant kitchens and bakeries in Berkeley and Oakland, such as Chez Panisse, Bread Workshop, and Pizzaiolo, to learn from real chefs. He’s attended summer cooking camps hosted by Spun Sugar and this week created edible gifts at Paulding & Company cooking school in Emeryville, the kitchen location for the first season of Top Chef. (An aside: Owner Terry Paulding taught animators at Pixar how to cook so they could authentically replicate the process in the film Ratatouille.)
Sam’s off to the south of France on a culinary tour with the folks from Sprouts, including chef Jed Cote, over spring break next year. He’s looking forward to learning to cook dishes he hasn’t even heard of yet. By baking cookies for his synagogue, bar mitzvahs, and other events, he’s raised enough to cover the cost of the $2,000 trip. Now he’s saving to go to China with his school choir this summer; his other love is singing. Sam hopes to earn $4,000 to pay for that trip. That’s a lot of cookies. Did I mention that Sam, who now attends the Pacific Boychoir Academy, is just 10?
In September, Sam was part of a three-member team who won a Sprouts Cooking Club Cook Off modeled after Iron Chef (think time crunch and secret ingredient) sponsored by Whole Foods in Berkeley and judged by local chefs. The winning dish: Eggplant parmigiana with goat cheese. You can watch an amusing account of the competition here.
Sam’s favorite kitchen tools: A garlic chopper and onion goggles, picked up from Sur La Table (though the editors at Eat Me Daily sniff at such eyewear, in the kitchen kids will try anything to avoid tearing up while chopping). He loves ethnic cuisine, particularly Indian and Italian. He finds recipes a bit boring, preferring to experiment with ingredients, temperatures, and techniques. And, like all good cooks, he’s had his share of flops: Hot and sour soup so spicy it burned his tongue. A few inedible misadventures with a slow cooker. He shrugs off such failures as part and parcel of perfecting his craft.
Here’s what Sam enjoys most about cooking: “I really like it when other people enjoy what I make. That’s very satisfying, especially if it’s a dish that takes a long time to prepare, like vegetable moussaka.”
In ten years or so if you run across a cafe called Essen (it means “to eat” in German and a certain kid thinks it’s a cool name for a restaurant) serving salmon teriyaki and lemon souffle you might inquire about the name of the chef. Don’t be surprised if it’s Sam Siegel.
Sam takes email orders for his ginger, chocolate crackle, and oatmeal raisin cookies at firstname.lastname@example.org.