Want to Cook with Your Kids? Read Chef Jonathon Sawyer's New Cookbook, Noodle Kids

Chef Jonathan Sawyer is getting kids to explore their taste buds beyond the normal macaroni, and he's sharing all his kid-friendly, healthful recipes in his new cookbook, Noodle Kids.

Chef Jonathon Sawyer always had a good palate. He was born into a family that cherished and celebrated good food, and his grandmother often whipped up meals, or rather feasts, for Sawyer and his 33 first cousins. He entered the restaurant world at the young age of 13, but it wasn't until Sawyer landed at an upscale bistro, Café Boulevard, that he discovered he had true culinary potential. One day the surly and old-fashioned German chef tasted his food, nodded and then said, "You know, Jon, you’re not bad at cooking." That was the pivotal moment for Sawyer, and soon after it, he ended his engineering studies at the University of Dayton and pursued a degree from the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts.

After a career that took him through the kitchens of esteemed chefs Charlie Palmer and Michael Symon, he's since become the chef-owner of four award-winning restaurants in his hometown of Cleveland: The Greenhouse Tavern, Trentina, and two outposts of his kid-friendly, farm-to-table noodle house, appropriately named Noodlecat. His first cookbook, Noodle Kids: Around the World in 50 Fun, Healthy, Creative Dinners the Whole Family Can Cook Together, is an ode to all things noodle. The book offers fun tidbits and an inside view into Sawyer’s off-the-clock cooking life with his wife Amelia, 9-year-old son Catcher and 7-year-old daughter Louisiana, (Lulu) who together have personally prepared and enjoyed the recipes in their home.

Be honest: What kind of eater were you as a kid?

Maybe I got into more serious food later on, but I always enjoyed whatever my mom was cooking. I think food phobias are passed down from parents to kids, almost like a vicarious phobia. Obviously, food allergies are serious and people need to pay attention to those, but kids not liking eggs — it’s more about something the parent said, as opposed to something the parent cooked. It is paramount to have kids crack the eggs and touch the food. The simplest touch makes them more inclined to try it and enjoy it. That’s when the conversation gets really interesting.

In addition to being approachable and diverse, the recipes are put into context with the character you created, Noodlecat.

Being the food nerd that I am, I like to talk historically or anthropologically about where the noodles came from initially. Every culture has a stuffed noodle or a broth noodle. A lot of cultures, because of the lack of grain, have gluten-free noodles. Whenever there is an opportunity to explain the history or backstory, we love to talk about that. We allowed Noodlecat to explain a lot of those stories as well as crack a couple jokes and talk about food safety. That culinary part comes in many times when you talk about the definition of gnocchi coming from gnocco, which means "knuckle of wood" in Italian and looks like a knuckle. Or fideos in Spain, from the Moorish, who were once in the southern part of Catalonia and inspired, arguably, the base of paella.

When people think of cooking noodles, they think of boiling or stir-frying. What are some other techniques people should know about?

Being a busy parent, the oven is your best bet. Especially if you have a really young child, it allows you to cook without really being at the stove. You may look at a recipe that says it has 23 minutes of cook time and think that you're going to be in the kitchen standing in front of a pot for 23 minutes straight. When in actuality with some of the more simple recipes, even the broth recipes, you are allowing something to simmer or bake untouched or unsupervised so you can set the table or do dishes or have a conversation with your kid about food that's in the oven. That's an approach I take that's similar in the restaurant. I would much rather do a lot of prep work in advance, so that way when it comes time to serve you are actually sitting down and enjoying with your family, as opposed to putting the final touches on the plate or cutting garnishes or doing a couple extra things.

A lot of parents struggle to get dinner on the table. How do you suggest they manage it?

Pick the easiest recipe first. Culinary perfection just doesn't happen. That mindset has to be eliminated. Pick the easier recipe that you know your family already enjoys, and take the extra step to make it homespun. From there you build the confidence to get into recipes you can sandbag in your freezer for months or recipes that can involve everybody.

With kids in the kitchen, how do you deal with the mess?

I clean pretty fastidiously. That's my compulsion. There are times when I feel like people use more saute pans and sauce pans than they need to because they don’t understand the restaurant side of it. My recipes take the opposite approach. There are some shortcuts in terms of the amount of cleanup you’ll have in our book, like using the same pot to blanch vegetables.

What are your top tips for cooking?

Don't be intimidated; the kitchen is your friend. Everyone's comfort level is a little bit different, but you can't get ahead if you don't swing the bat. You just gotta get in there and allow yourself to learn from your mistakes and allow yourself to make very simple, seemingly boring recipes and make them exciting by involving your family.

How would you encourage kids at home to eat their veggies?

If you're having a ramen party for a birthday or weekend event and having kids and cousins over, or even just for adults, you just have to write the rules on the table: The bowl is yours, create your own hand-crafted ramen; however, the only rule is you have to pick two vegetables. And no, tofu does not count as a vegetable. That can translate back to the shopping portion. Going to where you get your produce, a grocery store or farmers market, and allow kids to pick what we're eating tonight. Ramen or spaghetti? OK, we're going to make spaghetti, and now pick two vegetables you want to be in the spaghetti.

What's the overall message you want to the book to convey?

Cooking and eating healthy and having a healthy family life isn't about trickery; it's about honesty. It's about arming kids and parents with the knowledge to make the right food decisions for the rest of their life. It's not about "next Friday I'm going to convince them to eat carrots by hiding them inside of a cookie." It's about getting the kids to pick the carrots from the farm and then just roasting the carrots and knowing that because they picked them out of the soil, they are going to enjoy it. The gimmick is that there is no gimmick.

Chilled Soba and Seaweed Salad
4 servings

You know those bow-tie pasta salads with Italian dressing, olives and veggies you always find at a cookout? This is a Japanese version of the typical picnic salad. It’s a simple, light lunch to be enjoyed with sunlight.

1 tablespoon sweet soy sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 head garlic, cloves peeled and grated
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 lemon, zested and juiced
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
Chili sauce, to taste
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup shredded carrot
1 pound soba noodles
1/2 cup sliced kombu
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1/2 cup sliced scallion

1 container ( 4 ounces) sprouts (choose spicy sprouts such as horseradish, daikon, wasabi or mustard)

In the large bowl, whisk together both soy sauces, garlic, ginger, lemon zest and juice, rice wine vinegar, chili sauce, sesame oil and vegetable oil. Add the shredded carrot and stir to combine. WAIT! Refrigerate for 20 minutes, until the carrots are quick-pickled.

Fill the pot with water and season with salt until it tastes like seawater. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cook the soba noodles until slightly underdone, 5 minutes for fresh noodles, 7 minutes for dried noodles. Rinse the noodles in cold water until cooled.

Toss the cooled noodles with the vinaigrette, kombu and sesame seeds. WAIT! Let the noodles marinate in the refrigerator for 10 minutes.

Garnish with the scallion and sprouts.

Kiri Tannenbaum is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Paris and holds an M.A. in food studies from New York University where she is currently an adjunct professor. When her schedule allows, she leads culinary walking tours in New York City and is currently at work on her first book.

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