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Published: Tuesday, 8/23/2011

COMMENTARY

Food Network celebs, kids ham it up in Milan

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE COLUMNIST

MILAN, Ohio -- Too many cooks, they say, spoil the broth. But what if those cooks are under 4 feet tall?

Last week, a couple of dozen youngsters ages 7 to 11 years old swarmed into the Culinary Vegetable Institute to learn about vegetables and how to cook them. Their instructor and culinary Pied Piper was a celebrity probably unfamiliar to some: Robert Irvine is a chef and star of three shows currently on the Food Network (Dinner: Impossible, Restaurant: Impossible, and Worst Cooks in America).

Chef Irvine led five of the youths in an all-for-fun cook-off against five children led by another Food Network star, Marc Summers, host of Unwrapped and, not coincidentally, executive producer of Dinner: Impossible and Restaurant: Impossible. The kids on each side selected the vegetables they wanted to cook with from an old-fashioned vegetable cart, and helped develop the dishes they would make.

This help came in the form of answering such questions as "Do you like beets? Yes? Good, we'll use those. Do you like parsnips? No? OK, then we won't use those."

Along with beets and parsnips, an enormous variety of vegetables were on hand, from Swiss chard to Romanesco cauliflower to baby carrots.

If some of the vegetables seem unusual, it is because they came from The Chef's Garden, the renowned farm in Milan that grows high-end produce for many of the country's top restaurants. And because the kids primarily were the children of workers at The Chef's Garden and its offshoots, the Culinary Vegetable Institute and Veggie U, they tended to know more about vegetables than most children.

"Does anyone know what this is?" Chef Irvine asked, holding up a light green bulb topped by several thin stalks. "Kohlrabi!" shouted one boy.

Along with the cooking, there was much clowning around. Chef Irvine has two daughters, 10 and 13, and he knows how to connect with youngsters. "I love being silly," he told the assembled kids, and often proved it. Mr. Summers has two adult children of his own, and many viewers remember him as host of Double Dare, a slimy, messy game show for kids in the '80s. Toledoans might remember his mother, the former Lois Essak, who grew up here. As a boy, Mr. Summers came to visit relatives every summer.

Despite the high jinks and the high spirits, the teams cooked up some seriously excellent food. Among their many dishes, Chef Irvine's team created a salad of baby carrots, fennel, and potatoes; pizzas topped with raspberries, blackberries, yogurt, and chocolate chips; and a simple dish of heirloom tomatoes and onion slices.

"Are those just tomatoes?" Mr. Summers asked. In mock horror, Chef Irvine replied, "'Just'? 'Just'? God gave us something perfect. Don't ruin it."

Mr. Summers is not a professional chef -- "I'm the only person at the Food Network who doesn't cook" -- so his team was helped by Chef Irvine's director of catering, Lee Lucier. Their multitude of dishes included lasagne topped with raspberries, blackberries, huckleberries, and baby tomatillos; vegetable pizza; and some extraordinary tempura-fried green beans and eggplant slices.

At the end, Chef Irvine's team was declared the winner by a quarter-point, but the judge was his own father so the contest might not have been entirely fair. The kids learned unusual facts about fruits and vegetables (Chef Irvine held up a lemon and asked, "Have you ever heard of scurvy?"). And 8-year-old Jack Thompson of Perrysburg learned that beets actually can taste good when they have been roasted.

"It was fun," said Katia Shapovalova of Sandusky, who spent much of the afternoon with her hands covered by ooey-gooey blackberries and raspberries she had crushed.

Said Mr. Summers, "It was so much fun. I felt like a kid, myself."

Contact Daniel Neman at: dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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