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Thoughts on a cooking prodigy

In the most recent episode of Chopped, one of the contestants was a 16 year old who was attending the Children's Professional School in New York City (that I've mostly heard of in relation to young people who are actors, musicians, and athletes) and labeled as a cooking prodigy.

Given the short time on Chopped, they didn't really explain what it meant for him to be a cooking prodigy. Did he attend culinary school at 13? Is he working in professional kitchens or as a private chef?

To me, the term prodigy implies that a young person is able to do something at a very high level typically only achieved by older adults. And yet with a chef, I'm not sure what that would mean. Most "top chefs" that we hear of, have their own restaurant at some point. But being a business owner/manager doesn't imply any cooking skills. Not to mention the historical tradition of someone working their way up through a kitchen.

However, I'm also not denying that there is clearly a difference between a lovely home cook and a quality professional kitchen. And a difference between a lovely quality professional kitchen and a truly amazing professional kitchen.

So, Chowhounds - what are your thoughts on a prodigy chef? Is it possible? Is this kid just some unique mix of skill and parents who will advocate for him to take this path? If there is such a "thing" as a prodigy chef, what would you expect to see? Thoughts?

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  1. Being a good cook is different than being a Chef.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Maximilien

      For the purpose of this thread, I'm mixing them to imply that this kid has labeled himself as a professional cook. And 'prodigy chef' went off the tongue better than 'prodigy professional cook'.

    2. why would someone with a supportive and nurturing family be any less a prodigy as a chef than as a pianist or a painter, or a computer programmer.

      i take it to mean that the child in question has an excelent sense of how to prepare food, how flavors combine, the importance of texture, mouth feel, color, etc. all the things that make a great chef, but because of the individual traits of this child, seem to come naturally to her/him.

      1 Reply
      1. re: KaimukiMan

        I agree -- I'd be skeptical, because I'm usually skeptical of the fabricated drama found on reality shows, but maybe he is.

        If Beethoven was playing concerts at 7, publishing compositions at 13, and Mozart was composing at 5 and playing as a regular court musician by 17, I really don't see why it isn't possible that someone could be considered a chef at 16.

      2. http://articles.nydailynews.com/2012-...

        Several news articles ran, this is one I was able to grab quickly.

          1. re: HillJ

            with a resume like that, I don't think 'chef' is being used lightly or incorrectly.

            1. re: sunshine842

              Warms my heart to learn that mentorship has not died and that a young chef can be taken seriously by the more accomplished. Ego leanings aside, Flynn has the ambition to grab serious attention. Color me impressed.

              1. re: HillJ

                looks like this is also being driven by a *very* savvy marketer -- all fuzzy and feel-good, but very, very goal-oriented.

                1. re: sunshine842

                  Can't have one without the other in this day and age.

                  1. re: HillJ

                    once in a while it's still around -- but more and more frequently you're right, sadly.

                    1. re: sunshine842

                      Never truer of the generation coming up and right behind who know no other way of communicating to their market or sharing their appealing talents..a la YouTube.

              2. I do think it's possible, and it's made even more possible by having supportive, and probably well to do, parents. There was that other episode of Chopped where it was kids cooking, and the 13 year old girl who had a food blog was featured. In her "bio" videos they showed her as living in Manhattan, and talked about how she attended cooking school in France one summer or something like that. Now, the majority of Americans do not have the means to send their junior high aged kid to Paris to cooking school. If other kids had the same opportunities that girl had, or that the 16 year old kid had (his website said he was cooking from The French Laundry cookbook... who was paying for those ingredients?), we might be seeing more of these "cooking prodigies".

                I will say though, that money etc is not a requirement for talent. The girl that ended up winning the Chopped kids episode was not from a well off family from what I could tell. She just had talent.

                3 Replies
                1. re: juliejulez

                  I was told a long time ago and believe to this day that the best gift we can give our children (whether obviously gifted or not) is confidence. What comes from that is limitless.

                  Scholarships, edu prizes and networking (and in this day and age young people are smart go getters) exist in culinary programs. Some young people have food blogs, small food businesses and the soaring spirit of a work ethic that does surprise adults but should be acknowledged merit on its own.

                  I think the take away is: SOME young people have the drive and talent early in life. Nothing hard about that notion.

                  1. re: HillJ

                    Oh I totally agree with you on the confidence part. I know I was successful in sports and music in high school, and then later in my real estate career (which started when I was 19), because of my parents' support and encouragement, even though we weren't well off. That's the biggest factor in a child's success in ANYTHING whether it's cooking, sports, music, whatever.

                    I'm just saying, we hear about this Flynn kid is because his parents are financing his PR and the food he's making to get him known. They must have a home large enough to nicely host his 20 person supper clubs as well. Even if a parent is the most supportive one there is, not all of them can provide financially like Flynn's parents have for him. I wish more junior high and high schools would have culinary programs so the kids that DO have the talent, but maybe not the means to develop it, have the opportunities that they wouldn't normally.

                    1. re: juliejulez

                      Another perspective and this has been my experience is that parents who can or do find the means to help their children don't realize they can only take it so far before they need to step away and let the young person take it from there. Some parents can't step away. Instilling confidence requires stepping back.

                      If this young chef has the talents described in several articles I've read at this point he's been encouraged by portions of the culinary community to go for it. I don't know Flynn or his parents so I'm making no assumptions on how much or how little his parents have helped him but I couldn't agree more than having parents who encourage their children are doing more for them then they may even realize..but letting go and stepping back is equally important. Whatever measures we take as parents to encourage our children a cooking prodigy will find a way to learn and grow.

                2. I was considered a prodigy chef at age ten because I could grill hamburgers for 6-8 people with absolute reliability. : )

                  1. If one can be a prodigy in music or math or physics, then I think cooking prodigies would be far more likely. I'm not sure I understand the question.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: MonMauler

                      The way that I understand the term 'prodigy' is being able to master or perform at an adult or near adult level at a very young age. So while I think the term applies to music and math, I don't necessarily see the term applying to something like gymnastics. A 15 year old (female) gymnastics Olympian isn't a prodigy (by my determination) because that is within the range for the peak performance in that discipline. However, a teenage math PhD is a prodigy as that is a undertaking typically assumed adults.

                      I ask the question because I don't think the markers of success in professional cooking directly link to cooking skill in a way as easy to define. Globally speaking, I'm sure there are thousands (if not millions) of teens working in professional kitchens. However, a reason many of them are not pegged as "prodigies" is because of the tradition of working through the ranks (not to mention discussions of how globally kitchen staff that now start at the bottom is influenced by issues of poverty).

                      I also think the questions of class and parental involvement/support can't be avoided. Are these kids cooking prodigies because of natural inclination, or they had an interest that their parents supported with classes, equipment, ingredients to practice at home, business advice etc?

                      Math prodigies have been discovered globally in environments devoid of "top rate" schools, and music prodigies in environments where all they had was the instrument and basic instruction. Cooking is something, that in many parts of the world is traditionally done by teens - so what differentiates the "professional cooking prodigy" from the talented home cook who's 16? That was more what motivated my question.

                      It may be the answer simply is a dedicated young person and wealthy/invested parents. So I asked the question to open a discussion if there is something that would distinguish a young person as a professional cooking prodigy.

                      (And while there have been linked to articles about the Flynn, that's not the teen who was on Chopped. So there are at least 2 of them out there using the moniker.)

                      1. re: cresyd

                        It is interesting. The term cooking prodigy is all over the Net assigned to the under 18 and there are dozens of young people highlighted.

                        The media assigned the moniker.

                        1. re: cresyd

                          How many 16-year-old kids can there be named Flynn AND considered a kitchen prodigy? I'm not really thinking this is a case of mistaken identity, but rather a case of adolescence and a zealous stylist making him look like someone other than the kid on Chopped.

                          If he's cooking professionally -- which he is -- and he's got the chops to stand next to the likes of Keller AND earn their respect -- which he does-- then he is most assuredly performing at a very advanced adult level (I'm old enough to be his mother, and I'd fall over in a dead faint if I had to cook net to Keller.....) -- and yeah, he fits your own definition of prodigy.

                      2. Luke Hayes-Alexander ( http://lukesgastronomy.com/ ) is another interesting example of a teen cooking prodigy. He grew up in a family who owned a small restaurant, and learned the business the way kids who are put to work in family businesses often do, but by the time he was 15, they'd totally handed the kitchen over to his control.

                        Some of the Ontario hounds did a chowdown there back in 2008, and he was running the kitchen single-handed, and turning out some pretty impressive (if sometimes a little over-reaching or over-fussy) dishes. I wrote about it here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/525543

                        He's a full-grown adult now, so no longer getting quite the same attention just for being a kid who cooks, but he's still out there doing his thing.

                        1. I tend to think this is just media exaggeration. A human interest story.

                          Yes, he seems to be doing great, but I believe some of the old school classically French chefs started their apprenticeships at 12 or 14.

                          He's not a prodigy. He's just a kid that has a head start over his peers.

                          11 Replies
                            1. re: sunshine842

                              For me a prodigy is someone with the innate ability to perform the level of an trained professional.

                              I say he's working at the level of a trained professional, but I don't think it's an innate ability. The kids just started training at an early age.

                              1. re: dave_c

                                Without knowing these young people, we're all armchair quaterbacking. Nurture/nature...the debate goes on. However, these "kids" are under 21. Child labor laws being what they are- still rare and whatever motivates them to stand in a hot kitchen rather than the hot sun of a baseball field is also rare. Unheard of, no. But rare. Coupled with the welcoming they've rec'd from accomplished chefs, hard not to take notice. It's not all marketing :)

                                1. re: dave_c

                                  While I agree about armchair quarterbacking, - I also am more inclined to think like dave_c.

                                  There is something about the term prodigy (to me) that really implies an innateness. Whether it be music, math, chess - while the innate ability can be trained to a higher level, (to me) it's more a case of developing what's already there.

                                  With these new young chefs to me it speaks more of a young person with a drive and desire, that is always unusual - but not necessarily a talent that's above and beyond. Whether they're exposed due to being born in a restaurant family or having parents that are willing to give them access to classes/training, - these kids aren't baking cakes or making pasta with no recipe or prior instruction. It's also impossible not to acknowledge that the mainstream 'celebrity' of chefs is relatively new, and has a growing ability to influence the dreams of driven youth the ways that athletes, actors, etc. have influenced the aspirations of the young. Would these kids have gone the route of 'cooking prodigy' if they were born 15 years earlier?

                                  Having the drive and ability to specialize like that is not common and is admirable in a young person, but it's not exactly prodigy.

                                  1. re: cresyd

                                    You've wax poetic. Beautifully so. "If" they were born 15 years... doesn't apply. These are young people working now, training now. I enjoyed what you wrote and it's not important to me if we all split hairs over media vs method. The only aspect that matters (to me anyway) is that young people are getting exposure earlier in life,preparation, confidence-all good! Their growing talents will or won't bring them into the next career stage.

                                    So whether we're talking food, music, sports, etc. the opportunities for all young people (generally speaking) are in fact earlier and grander today. I love that!

                                    Labels always seems to hang us (an over thinking society) up. We can thank the media for that. I don't have any problem with the word prodigy. The word is not applied to everyone.

                                    Judging young people makes me uncomfortable. I don't know these "kids" but I am very glad that they are welcomed into the industry. Young leadership programs are designed, scholarships and grants offered for a reason.

                                    1. re: HillJ

                                      A few random thoughts, as I wax poetic myself!

                                      Adults not young people apply the label prodigy. How many x's have you seen a young person get up to the piano and focus on the playing skill while the host of the show gushed over talent labels.

                                      Shows like Junior Masterchef in Aussie add to the comparison. This is play-school tv compared to real training but its now part of the culture.

                                      Water cooler conversation in the last decade includes foodspeak of every kind. We all contribute to perceptions of a cooking prodigy indirectly.

                                      Let's face it, food life has changed and it's now one avenue for young people to pursue as a career and as with most things offered to young people exposure is earlier and earlier. My son can talk to me about radishes for an hour!

                                      1. re: HillJ

                                        I agree - this isn't so much looking to judge any specific young people as it is thinking about the idea of what a cooking prodigy would be, should you feel one exists.

                                        This summer I saw the documentary First Position about ballet dancers aged 11-17. Now these kids/teens have talent miles above what the average kid/teen does. And also a disposition that the average kid/teen does not have. However, amongst the professional ballet world, this is a "normal" child.

                                        I don't think that professional cooking is as narrow a speciality as ballet. (Nor is math) However, I guess I wonder more if the ability achieved by these "professional cooking young" is more a novelty due to the fact that most young people won't have the parents or environment to pursue this. Rather than the ability.

                                        As a thought exercise, I think I've talked myself out of a "cooking prodigy" existing. I don't doubt that there can be very talented young cooks - but similar in the way that there are very talented young ballet dancers. They've started young, they're very dedicated, - but unlike ballet, it's not like there's an option for most young children to be put in a cooking class starting at age 3.

                                        1. re: cresyd

                                          sure there is -- there are a number of companies that offer cooking classes to children, not to mention the thousands of children who learn at Mom's/Grandma's/Auntie's side from that age (points thumb at self). (Beethoven learned from his father....)

                                          And while cooking is a learned skill -- so is ballet. So is piano. So is painting and sculpture. One can take all the cooking or ballet lessons or piano lessons you could find, but if you have a tin ear and no talent, it's not the same as having an innate talent.

                                          And just for reference, here's the "official" definitions:

                                          Dictionary.com: a person, especially a child or young person, having extraordinary talent or ability: a musical prodigy.

                                          Merriam-Webster.com: a highly talented child or youth (the third definition, as the first two are irrelevant to this discussion)

                                          Oxford Dictionary Online: a young person with exceptional qualities or abilities: a Russian pianist who was a child prodigy in his day

                                          So will these kids make history like Beethoven or Mozart? Not likely. But do they fit the academic definition? Well, it would see to me that they do.

                                          1. re: sunshine842

                                            My point on children's cooking classes was just that they are definitely not as ubiquitous as ballet classes (not to mention the constructed difference of cooking at home vs cooking professionally). In my previous post I equate ballet to cooking. While there are highly talented young people, a lot of it has to do at what age training starts, how dedicated the family is to the pursuit of the activity, and the interest/single-mindedness of the young person.

                                            I see this as different from musical prodigies who essentially figure out high levels of playing/performance with less instruction to achieve higher levels, and definitely different than math or chess prodigies who can require even less instruction to be able to think/perform at a high level. While I agree that the technical academic word applies, I don't think that it entirely captures the context of the word "prodigy" as I understand it. (Just as I don't think that the academic definition of the word 'authenticity' entirely captures its context)

                                            One of the elements I think is common in the use of the word "prodigy" as opposed to "talented" is the rarity. It is rare to see someone at age 15-16 saying "I'm a professional chef". Whereas it is far more common in our culture to see a teen spend hours a day on athletics/ballet (to the point where their schooling has to be adjusted).

                                            Talent is talent, and if these kids have it and know it's what they want to do at a young age - go forth. But I do think the use of the word prodigy more signifies how uncommon these kids are rather than that their talent itself is uncommon.

                                          2. re: cresyd

                                            My son and I watched First Position together the other night. Great take away discussion ensued afterwards.

                                            Also, this movie is a great slice of life examination that the pursuit of a dream is not a one size fits all proposition. Which I feel applies beautifully to this discussion. Lovely example.

                                            And on that note I'll leave my input here.

                                            1. re: HillJ

                                              Such a great (totally not food related!) movie - but yeah, I was definitely more interested in the "poetic waxing" of this subject than a right or wrong answer.