Ask the Experts: Chef Farid Zadi, Ecole de Cuisine

by Jessica on May 31, 2011

Photo by Jeff Tafoya

Chef and educator Farid Zadi wears many hats. Or toques. Or whichever metaphor you prefer. Among the professional titles and duties he performs on any given day include Dean of Culinary Arts of Ecole de Cuisine Los Angeles, co-Executive Chef of the forthcoming second annual (and very family-friendly) Couscous Festival in Pasadena, culinary consultant, occasional food writer, passionate crusader for North African cuisine, and purveyor of a new line of tagines. The classically trained French-Algerian chef and his wife, Susan Ji Young Park, with whom he founded Ecole de Cuisine, have two children. Read about how just because their kids now have eclectic food tastes — plus some impressive kitchen skills — it doesn’t mean they’ve never struggled getting everybody to partake at the family dining table.

And heads up! Ecole de Cuisine offers summer cooking classes for kids of all ages starting this week in Glendale. For more info about these and other summer cooking camps around town, check out my recent piece in Squid Ink. It turns out that there are plenty of opportunities to get kids busy and motivated in the kitchen. The generally high cost of the courses might give you sticker shock, or be out of the question entirely, but Ecole de Cuisine’s affordable program is an admirable exception.

Where do you like to eat out as a family?

The kids usually choose where we dine out. They usually pick cuisines or dishes that we don’t make at home. Their favorites are pupuserias, pho and Beijing duck. They also like to dress up to eat at fine dining restaurants, usually at a restaurant that one of my former students works at. I’m a bit ambivalent about it. I can see that they are a bit spoiled by the extra good service they get. On the other hand, they do have excellent table manners and the attention span to sit at a dinner table for hours while politely chatting away. Still, it’s a bit absurd that young kids request jidori chicken and mignardises plates.

What are your kids’ favorite foods?

They go through phases. Kamilah, my 12-year-old daughter, was the baby who ate everything. She ate spinach, eggplant, broccoli, quinoa, brown rice, merguez, deep-fried anchovies, etc. She didn’t refuse a single new food until she was four years old. Then she went through a white food phase for about two years. She only wanted to eat white food like rice, pasta, potatoes and bread.

Elias, my 8-year-old son, was born a picky eater, he only wanted to eat white food for the first couple of years. He was suspicious of green foods and red foods. These days, he likes just about everything, except vegetables. He watches a lot of animal kingdom type shows and reads a lot of encyclopedic books about animals. He’s going through a kind of wild man phase and often asks for game meats. He really likes rabbit tagine and smoked lamb (mechoui).

Now, both children like a pretty good variety of cuisines. They are pretty adventurous eaters actually. For everyday eating at home, they like pasta or bread with roasted or grilled chicken, steak, and lamb chops. They also like Koreanish meals of rice with roasted seaweed, fried tofu, miso soup, seaweed soup. Basically at home, they like to eat Mediterranean and East Asian meals.

What do you most enjoy cooking for them?

Steak. Both kids really like good steaks and so do I, especially cote de boeuf and porterhouse.

Do they cook a lot themselves?

Elias is starting to help his sister more with light cooking, but he’s only 8 years old, so he’s not allowed to use the stove or oven without supervision. He can reheat things in the toaster oven though.

We started teaching Kamilah basic things that she could do independently when she was about 10. Things like French toast, quesadillas, simple sandwiches, etc. When she turned 12, we started teaching her very basic knife skills. I don’t think kids are really ready to use a knife in the kitchen until they are at least 12, at least not French knife skills. Now, Kamilah can sauté basic things and she’s starting to learn the basics of cooking proteins and making sauces from pan juices and browned meat or poultry. She knows how to cook simple pastas and her grandmother bought her a mini rice cooker recently. And she can make simple breakfast items. Her all time favorite is French toast. And no, it’s not called French toast in France. 

So, yeah, Kamilah does a lot of cooking, considering that my wife and I both work a lot. She usually makes breakfast and lunch for herself and Elias. She also ends up cooking for her friends when they hang out together, since she’s the only one that knows her way around a stove and has the knife skills.

What dishes did you and your wife get them started with in the kitchen?

At first, it was teaching them to reheat leftovers. After that, French toast, pastas, quesadillas, pan-cooked chicken, etc. Simple, basic things to get them started.

How do you think it’s best to get children excited about and involved with cooking?

Talk to them about food and ingredients. Bring them into the kitchen. I know it can be messy and time consuming when they are young. But it pays off in the long run. It’s empowering, cooking is an important life skill. My wife is also very good about spending time talking to them at the dinner table. It’s family time to talk about what we all did during the day. Unfortunately, my career as a chef and as an instructor has meant that I am often not home for dinner. This is the reality of the industry. You end up cooking more for other people than your own family. 

The social aspects of cooking and eating are really important to emphasize. I would say that most people who take my classes for home cooks or enroll their kids into cooking classes are starved for the social aspects of cooking and eating. We live in a city where many people don’t have their extended family nearby. So, they’re looking to fill that void in some way.

Do you go food shopping and to farmers’ markets together? Or does your family have a garden at home?

Yes, we go shopping for food together often. The kids really know their way around different types of markets. They are really outgoing and interested in other food cultures. So, they love going to various “ethnic” markets, too.

Do you recommend any dishes in particular to serve as “templates” for experimenting with different flavors?

For kids, the trick to is to start with a very familiar base like pasta. Something they know and like already, even sandwiches or tacos. To that, you can add one new ingredient at a time. My kids also like slow cooked dishes. The only time they will really eat vegetables are when they are slow roasted with chicken or braised in a tagine. I actually have better luck getting other people’s kids to eat vegetables in my kids cooking classes. Go figure.

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