Love at first bite: the recipe for raising young epicureans

Is it possible to teach your child to be a foodie? Elle Kwan meets some parents whose children have discerning tastes

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 May, 2013, 1:12pm

Four-year-old Rico Bishop has already sampled sheep brains and Italian deep-fried rabbit spleen. What's more, he enjoyed them.

"He's a food fanatic," says Rico's father, Matt Bishop, the head chef at Wan Chai restaurant 22 Ships.

Food is a top priority in Rico's life. Bishop recounts that when the family was invited to London last year to watch the Queen's jubilee flotilla moving down the River Thames, he called Rico to watch, but "he said, 'Daddy, I'm eating lunch. I'm busy.'"

And during a visit to Din Tai Fung recently, Bishop describes how his son was the first to nab buns from the steamers that arrived in succession at the table. He continued until the end of the meal, when Rico showed his satisfaction by baring his stomach to the table with a delighted grin.

"I thought it was hilarious," says Bishop. "But his Japanese grandmother didn't look quite as pleased."

But are mini-foodies such as Rico born or made? It's a conundrum many parents would like to crack to escape endless mealtimes of chicken nuggets, soy-sauce rice and other child-friendly staples.

Spanish chef Paco Roncero of View 62, the revolving restaurant atop Hopewell Centre, says exposure is a natural way to raise good eaters, although there doesn't have to be an emphasis on fine dining.

Nothing's worse than ... someone ignorant about food. My kids [musn't] be like that
Christine Smith-Mann, mother

Roncero offers menus with a molecular bent, and children who eat there are increasingly adventurous, the chef says. On Sundays, little food lovers swarm buffet tables for caviar-like spheres of olive oil. Omelettes, made with potato foam and egg yolk layers, go down a storm. At least one petite patron has ordered caviar, says Roncero.

With upscale dining rooms like those at The Langham hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, which this month launched an afternoon tea set aimed at mothers and children, and the success of kids-eat-free brunches at places such as contemporary Japanese restaurant Zuma, it's clear that more parents are looking beyond the casual options traditionally aimed at children.

Caprice, the Four Seasons hotel's opulent French restaurant, which has an over-three-years-old policy, has entertained eight-year-olds with its à la carte menu.

Perplexed by picky adults she has met, Christine Smith-Mann - whose three children are aged nine, 10 and 12 - sought to expose her children to a full range of cuisines early on. One of the family's first foodie experiences was to a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant.

"There's nothing worse than going to a dinner party or eating out and meeting someone who is ignorant about food. Someone who says, 'Oh, I don't eat Chinese' or 'I don't like Indian'," she says. "I never wanted my kids to be like that."

Her children quickly graduated from conveyor-belt sushi to pure sashimi, and now count Korean, Thai and Japanese foods as favourites. The exposure has helped build their food and cultural knowledge, she says. "They can tell you about the food, and where it's from."

Bishop thinks heritage combined with a natural passion for food produced his own mini-gourmand. The Japanese side of the family has nurtured Rico's respect for food, seasonality and balance. It's also a culture that expects children to eat what they are served.

Bishop and his wife share a love of food that he thinks has been passed down to Rico, although he adds that his son's appetite for green vegetables far surpasses his own at the same age. Eating together encourages his children to try new things, too. "We try to eat at least one meal together a day," he says.

However, shared mealtimes appear to be diminishing in Hong Kong. According to the Hong Kong Playground Association, 10 per cent of 947 school children polled in April revealed that their meals lasted less than 10 minutes on average.

One way for families to heighten their children's food appreciation is by involving them in the preparation to arouse their curiosity and encourage them to try new foods, says registered dietitian Charmain Tan. Parents don't have to start with oysters and foie gras to raise a foodie.

"Let the kids participate. Take them grocery shopping. Allow them to pick out the vegetables they want for dinner and for their snack boxes," says Tan. "If they are old enough, let them cut up the veggies or stir the stew you are cooking."

And if parents do not have the time to cook with their children, there are classes like those offered by Spring, a learning centre that opened this year in Wan Chai. At a HK$380 hour-long class for baby gourmands, 18-month-olds are discovering apples. They hold the fruits, smell them, bite into them and finally help bake them into cinnamon buns.

Television chef Christian Yang developed the health-focused Nutrition and Discovery curriculum, which targets children aged from 18 months to four years old. Older children can learn to cook items such as salmon fish patties, mushroom quiches and cakes.

Spring's founder, Joyce Chang, says she launched the cooking courses after talking to parents and seeing a demand.

Connecting children with food can help them acquire a wider palate, says Chang, a mother of two. Her son grew to like spinach after making ravioli with the vegetable in the cooking class. "Children can create something tangible. They engage in the cooking process; they develop a relationship," Chang says.

But the learning doesn't stop at the cooking. Parents are facing constant pressure to see their children perform well - and that includes their table etiquette, says Yoshiko Hariu, founder of Spark Studios, a children's hang-out in Quarry Bay.

Etiquette is usually learned in the family setting, but parents are turning to outside sources to teach their children how to behave at dinner or during a meal at a top restaurant.

Spark Studios has just begun offering etiquette lessons, available for five- to 14-year-olds at a cost of HK$2,700 for six classes. Children learn how to set a table for both Western and Asian cuisines, use cutlery and basic table manners.

Not all children are eating at the Four Seasons, but etiquette sets them up for when they may do so in the future. "It's very important for when they enter the real world," says Hariu.

But even the best exposure can give way to developmental hurdles. Chef Matt Abergel who runs restaurants Yardbird and Ronin, is ideally positioned to raise children who are good eaters. His eldest daughter, five-year-old Lili, used to eat anything, including raw fish and pickled ume (Japanese apricots or plums). These days, however, she is increasingly fussy. "Now, she has an opinion on everything," he says.

Children's friends can be negative influences, too, says Smith-Mann. Her daughter has always been a good eater, but went through a phase of requesting plain white pasta after a playmate requested spaghetti with no sauce.

The consistent rule in Smith-Mann's family is that all food on the plate needs to be tried at least once. If it is tried and denied, the children are allowed to leave it. "What I don't like is kids not trying food because it looks 'gross'," she says.

Meanwhile, Abergel's two children regularly insist on pasta, and the restaurateur's compromise is to make the chosen dishes, but with high-quality ingredients, such as good butter and fresh vegetable sauces. For pizza, they'll head to Motorino, the New York chain that recently opened in Central, "so at least they know what good pizza tastes like".

Fighting over tastes can be frustrating, so Abergel sees no point forcing the issue. "The last thing I want to do is traumatise them by getting in their faces with pieces of horse sashimi."