Sancharita Ghosh remembers her chef moment. She was six years old and frolicking in the kitchen pretending to be a chef. The family cook had just added the finishing touches to a large pot of bubbling dal and preparing to remove the heavy brass vessel from the stove. Sancharita slipped and fell on the cook. The dal spilled and Sancharita’s foot was scalded. Prompt medical care and loads of chocolates and ice creams later, she was banned from the kitchen. She was allowed in only to fetch a glass of water or dump her dirty plate in the sink.
Years later when she finally set off to study abroad, all she knew was to make Maggi and coffee. Then there is Chef Kicha aka Nihal Raj, from Kochi. He is a YouTube sensation with thousands of subscribers. Four years ago at the same age Sancharita was, he became one of the youngest guests ever on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. The host was thoroughly floored by Kicha’s description of traditional Kerala breakfast, puttu, rendered in a broad Malayali accent. He breaks out laughing about Ellen struggling with the pronunciation of puttu.
Best leave the cooking to the pro, many believe. But amateur cooks have been acing Instagram and Pinterest over the last couple of months. Their age group is getting smaller with children between 10 and 13 going pro with élan. The recent lockdown, social-distancing norms and the new normal of work-from-home have driven parents to their wits’ end. All outdoor activities such as play sessions in parks with friends, schools and creche services have been suspended. There were only many books to read. Hence children in the kitchen have become small versions of Gordon Ramsays and Vikas Khannas at home.
Now most of them are raring to go and planning to start their own commercial food businesses—albeit on a small scale. Coding engineer Ruchira Somesh from Bengaluru, says, “I’ve two small kids—one six and the other nine. In the initial days of the lockdown, they were irritated and fought a lot. The house was a chaos zone. Both my husband and I worked from home. I went online to find how best to manage kids in this situation. Letting them into the kitchen, which had been out-of-bounds till now, was a solution.” The parents were in for a surprise.
Not only did the kids enjoy the cookery lessons, they became more responsible. “Now they help out at mealtime. There is more camaraderie between them. I give them easy-to-follow recipes and often download YouTube cookery videos but make it a point to be around when they cook. They do all the measuring and mixing, and operate the oven, but I haven’t allowed them to handle knives and stoves yet,” says Ruchira. Being more tech-savvy than adults, most budding little chefs know how to get maximum hits online through Instagram accounts and YouTube channels, but moderated by parents. Some of them have showcased their talent at various cook-off challenges. Others are content showing off their skills on family WhatsApp groups. Many child chefs got their first cooking lessons watching their mothers, fathers and grandmothers in the kitchen.
Others began with odd jobs around the kitchen before the Big Fight. Baking is a hit, considering that most parents feel it is safer than handling live fire and also that kids have a sweet tooth. Some children love to mix cocktails, too. While others cook spicy curries. But it’s not always a smooth ride. Just like professional chefs having bad days, junior chefs are frustrated when the cake refuses to rise, the bread becomes doughy, the doughnut is undercooked or the macaroon comes out hard like a rock. But unlike many adults who brood over failures, children have admirable resilience. For the last four years, Tripti Athaide has been teaching the basics of cooking to children as young as two at Mumbai-based Flavours of Fun.
Touted as a creative no-flame, healthy cooking and baking culinary experience for children, its primary focus is to inculcate healthy eating habits and food etiquette in kids and allow them to make everything themselves even if it’s just assembling a simple cucumber and tomato sandwich. “Kids enjoy independence. Cooking attracts them for its basics—the joy of measuring and mixing ingredients to create magic. Moreover, they are keen learners. They enjoy picking up new facts about food and experiencing fresh flavours,” says Tripti. Their biggest joy is a sense of achievement once the dish is ready. Till the pandemic turned things haywire, Tripti’s classes were all offline. Now she is contemplating starting interactive online classes.
The kitchen has always been a powerful place to learn. Nutritionists believe that encouraging children to cook can help them overcome their food fickleness, especially about eating vegetables. For a cook, curiosity and adventure go hand in hand. Ruchira’s six-year-old boy would refuse to eat spinach. But ever since he started baking an egg-spinach-mozarella cup along with his brother, he is in love with the green leafy vegetable, which he believes will one day turn him into the Hulk.
Noida-based infant and child nutritionist Shonali Lall says, “Kids are often finicky about eating. No matter how well prepared the dish is, they wouldn’t have it if they’re averse to an ingredient in it. Most parents have a difficult time trying to feed their kids vegetables. But if kids do some cooking, they end up enjoying the process. Their distaste towards certain vegetables is easily removed.” Cultivating culinary passion in children encourages healthy habits and like saying no to packaged foods. “Cooking has helped me wean my kids away from TV and computer games,” smiles Ruchira.
In most Indian homes, the kitchen is traditionally the woman’s domain—be it the mother’s or grandmother’s. Some have domestic help. But over the years, the emergence of nuclear families has forced the situation to change dramatically. With the woman of the house working late hours, the men chip in. Psychologists say that a child who sees his or her father in the kitchen would be more interested to take up cooking than the ones who don’t. It also instils self-confidence. Academics are catching on. Many schools and institutions on the forefront of primary education are looking to include cooking in the curriculum. Quite a few schools have banned junk food on campus.
Nutrition studies are a must in the classroom. Bengaluru and Mumbai have on-campus nutritionists, hold cookery classes and support student-run healthy food stalls at fetes. Some schools have scrapped canteens to limit consumption of unhealthy food. Delhi-based food enterprise Caara offers kids as young as eight years old a chance to learn the chemistry and wizardry of cooking through their course, Le Petit Chef. Kitchens of today are no longer accident-prone places. Equipped with a plethora of the latest gadgets, an amateur cook can serve you a seven-course dinner without wielding a knife even once or even turning on the flame.
Vaibhavi Mehrotra, 13 Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh
Weekends at the Mehrotra family home were all about experimenting with food. When she was nine, Vaibhavi became her mother’s assistant in the kitchen. Enamoured with baking, she has learnt the hard way the importance of measuring out the ingredients, nor to forget to go by the book. “If you want a nice and moist cake then you need to measure the ingredients correctly because their proportions in the recipe will change if you don’t,” she observes. “Just last week, I tried to make doughnut chips which are basically flattened crispy doughnuts but I thought that if I don’t add yeast, I would still get a nice crispy doughnut. It turned out crispy but was kind of gooey inside,” she recounts a recent culinary failure.
The lockdown period found this young baker turning out cakes for her relatives, neighbours and friends. Vaibhavi dreams of becoming a pastry chef and has represented her school at cooking competitions. She admits to being a chocolate fan. “My favourite comfort food is a chocolate cake with a nice smooth and silky chocolate ganache. I can eat it every day anytime,” she says.
Chocolate makes every sweet treat even better
One step at a time
Wants to start a home bakery and then a cafe
Buddy Valastro, owner of Carlo’s Bakery, NY, US
Vaibhavi’s bake diaries
Sunidhi Mehta, 10 Pune, Maharashtra
When she was just four, Sunidhi would look on with wonder as her aunt baked batches of mouth-watering brownies. Soon she started assisting the aunt. Happy to indulge and encourage his daughter’s love for baking, her father got her a recipe book on cakes. And a chef was born. “I would love to own a cake and coffee store someday. I just want to make all kinds of beautiful cakes which make people smile and their bellies happy,” she giggles.
A cook book aficionado, last summer Sunidhi recreated one recipe every day from Chef Shivesh Bhatia’s book. Since she is fond of baking and sweets, her choice ingredients are brown sugar and cinnamon. “While brown sugar adds a beautiful delicate caramel note to desserts, cinnamon enhances the flavour, especially in cakes,” she quips like a pro. Sunidhi doesn’t give up in the face of failure. “Macaroons must be crisp outside and soft inside. Mine turned out to be so crisp that I never managed to get to the inside! But I’m determined to try again and again until I get it perfect,” she says confidently.
Favourite comfort food
Not on her plate
Medha Bhat, 12 Aryapu, Karnataka
Coming from a small village, 55 km from Mangaluru, Medha was surprisingly clear right from Class III about what she wanted to become. While others wanted to be astronauts and farmers, she had set her sights on becoming a restaurateur. And she already had a name ready for it—Tandorusthi Hotel.
Inspired by YouTube cookery videos that her mother would download for her, she was always amazed by how a variety of ingredients come together to create a brilliant dish. “I would also be surprised with how a small amount of salt can be just right for a large pot of curry,” says the 12-year-old. Medha took the first tentative steps towards cooking at the age of eight, and hasn’t looked back since.
Living in a small town has its challenges as she cannot get all the ingredients, mainly for her baking. Fond of the oven, Medha makes customised cakes for birthdays and events, and has participated in cake cook-offs. A hyperactive kid, her mother is often amazed by how she keeps her impatience in control when a recipe demands hours of preparation time.
Mastering a lava cake
Chocolate and potato
Kunal Kapoor and Sanjeev Kapoor
Ranveer Kalbag, 10 Pune, Maharashtra
His sweet tooth got him to don the chef’s hat. “I’m always looking for something sweet. One day when I couldn’t find anything to satisfy my craving, I decided to go ahead and make some sweets,” Ranveer smiles. Since his father is a professional chef who cooks at home every Sunday, the 10-year-old turned Sous Chef and picked up the tricks of the trade. Like most kids his age, he is a gaming and coding pro; but unlike them he could rattle off the recipe for his favourite sheera (semolina pudding) when he was five. Five years on, he has many ambitions—all concerning food. One part of him wants to follow in his dad’s footsteps.
Another part craves to master baking or become a mixologist. But the kitchen it is, for now. His favourite ingredients are naturally sugar and butter for the magic they make together. No wonder he hates spicy food. Ask him about his favourite comfort food and pat comes the reply, “My dad’s pasta in cheese sauce.” Dad is proud that Ranveer can suss out if a dish is perfectly seasoned by just taking a whiff like a professional chef.
Once he did not let the dough dry, and the doughnuts came out flat
Favourite cookery show
Jeffery Adam Goldman and Duff Goldman’s Kid’s Baking Championship
Experimenting with cocktails and making flavoured ice cubes
Aditya Wadhwa, 13, Ahmedabad, Gujarat
Aditya remembers helping his mother serve rotis at dinner at the family table. As he grew older, he took to assisting her with the cooking. Soon enough, he was making his own dishes independently. “I love baking. So naturally I end up making batches of brownies and cakes,” he smiles. Aditya dreams of becoming a Pastry Chef some day. In fact, this 13-year-old has already decided to get a degree from Le Cordan Bleu (Paris, France) and open a bakery-cum-cafe. “I idolise Chef Alvin Zhou who is one of the chefs at TASTY, a channel I follow with all my heart.
I love his artistic way of explaining cuisine and food presentation. The first dish I baked on my own was from a recipe of his,” says the teen, who loves cooking with chocolate that has 50 percent cocoa. Though he takes lessons from the best, at times he does mess up. “One of my cooking experiments that went terribly wrong was on Mother’s Day last year. I misread a recipe and the cake, after the mixing and baking, didn’t solidify and remained uncooked,” he confesses sheepishly.
Dish he cannot do without
His father’s Butter Chicken or Chicken Tikka Masala
When not cooking
Loves gaming, tennis and football
Not on his plate
Turai, Tridali dal and Parval ki sabzi
Naisha Chandra, 13 Gurugram, Haryana
Like Ranveer’s father, Naisha’s dad too is a hospitality professional who often cooks at home. Originally hailing from the foodies’ paradise Lucknow, cooking is in her DNA. “I’m a true-blue foodie and love to eat. I thought why not give cooking a try and here I am,” she confesses. Smoothies and shakes make her day, besides Italian cuisine. Naisha first took to cooking when she was eight. “My mom believes that we must learn everything in life,” she says sagely.
Like most kids, chocolate is her pet ingredient. While she enjoys cooking and often contemplates going pro, the Lucknow girl isn’t the typical starry-eyed 13-year-old. “I’ve been lately thinking about other careers too. But I won’t ever give up cooking, because it’s one of my main passions,” says Naisha.
Favourite comfort food
Any dessert, any time
During her first attempt at baking banana bread, she forgot to add baking soda. Result: Flat, doughy, undercooked bread.
When not cooking
Loves to travel and dance