Food News

What my kids have taught me about cooking

"You better eat all of those dumplings. They are three-Michelin-star dumplings right there, so you better appreciate every bite!" Three hospitality families on their brood and food.

By Karlie Verkerk
Dan Hong with daughter Namira.

David Lovett, Ethel Food Store, Brunswick Heads, NSW

Partner Sarah (restaurant manager at La Casita, NSW) and Lennox (18 months)
As I get older and deeper into the industry, and now that I have kids, I'm starting to cook more and more like an Italian nonna. At home, I like to make food that is simple, hearty and healthy; essentially things that I can do with a baby on my hip, or while Lennox is running around my feet at a million miles an hour. I give him pots and pans to play with so he can make a racket while I cook, and feed him things like tomatoes from the garden to make sure he's involved in the process.
Food is my love and my passion. I cook all day at work and I like nothing more than coming home and cooking for my family. But I don't want to be chained to a stove because I'll miss spending quality time with the kids, especially in the evening when they're about to go to bed. So I try to keep dinners as simple as possible; you only need two or three ingredients to make something delicious. I read a lot of cookbooks from the '50s, including Elizabeth David and Patience Gray – the way they cook and write is so inspiring.
We don't eat pasta every single day; we might have it a couple of times a week, but it's always full of vegetables. One night we might eat cacio e pepe, and then the next night it will be a vegetable bake. But I guess I'm always trying to find new ways with food – you don't want to be serving the same old things every week.
Since having kids, tinned beans, such as borlotti, cannellini and butter beans have become my best friends in the kitchen. I'll drain and rinse a tin of beans and Lennox will sit and eat them as a snack. Often I'll add them to a soup or a stew, or as a side with a piece of pork or chicken. You'll be surprised how easy it is to make a fabulous meal out of a tin of beans and a couple of things from the garden or whatever is kicking around in the fridge.
I want to teach my kids that pulling something out of the ground and eating it is normal. It's not a special thing, but
I think that has been lost with a lot of people. We have a little garden where we grow a few things like peas and strawberries
and herbs. Lennox likes nothing more than picking peas off the plant and eating them, pod and all. He'll just pull things out
of the ground and try them, including dirt and rocks.
I've learnt not to assume that kids won't eat something just because they're kids. If you put food in front of them and let them have a go, nine times out of ten they will eat it if they're hungry. I think if you put up a barrier, especially with children, they want to go against what you say. I don't make a fuss about it; I don't say, "You're not leaving the table until all of that is gone." It's what my parents said to me when I was a child and I think that made me the world's fussiest eater; I would be defiant and never eat any vegetables. My parents find it so amusing that I'm a chef now.
We don't dine out a lot because Sarah and I are only home together a couple of nights a week. But when we do, Lennox
eats whatever we eat. Recently, we went out for dinner and we ordered a bowl of beautiful Goolwa pipis, which Sarah and I mostly missed out on because Lennox ate more than half of the bowl. I remember dining at Quay one time when Sarah was operations manager there and Archie (David's eldest son, 13) ordered the David Blackmore wagyu. It was all very nice but, gee, was it expensive! Although I'd much prefer that than either of my kids craving junk food or turning their nose up at fresh produce.
We've just started doing fridge-rice Saturdays. I'll just pull out everything we've had in the fridge through the week and I'll make a rice dish out of it. It's a great way to use up all those leftovers that are hiding in the fridge that might otherwise be thrown out. As a chef, wastage is a painful thing and, most importantly, you're throwing money away.
I used to really enjoy the smell of babies, but Lennox, more often than not, smells like pecorino, moussaka or korma. The first time he ate fried rice, he had the worst onion breath – a beautiful little baby with onion breath! I was, like, "Oh no what have I done to you, you poor little thing."
Ethel Food Store, 2/19 Booyun St, Brunswick Heads, NSW, (02) 6685 1343,

Séverine & Rodney Dunn, The Agrarian Kitchen, Tas

Tristan (13) and Chloe (6)
R: A weeknight meal in our household is fairly chaotic. I often finish work late or we might have a cooking class in our kitchen, so we try to keep it fairly simple. Quite often it will be a bunch of dishes thrown into the middle of the table, or some things I've brought home from the restaurant; our style of eating is very communal. Pasta is popular because it's fairly quick and easy, and winter is quite handy for us because we can pop, say, some pork in a Le Creuset pot with some vegetables and slow-cook it in the oven.
R: When it comes to eating, the kids are very different. Chloe is quite adventurous, so she loves oysters, olives, sardines and anchovies. Whereas Tristan is the complete opposite: he likes very plain food without too many spices. So we try to cook for multiple tastes.
S: We sit down as a family every single night for dinner – around a table, not at the TV. I think that comes from my upbringing. Even when the kids' friends come around for dinner we like to stick to our normal routine and sit down all together.
R: If the kids have taught me anything about food it's to chill out a bit – they're not going to love everything that you make
and they're going to tell you when they don't think it's right. Kids are great levellers; they keep it real and help you to pull back and see the bigger picture. As chefs, we can get a little bit full of ourselves and get stuck thinking that food is everything in life. It's just food at the end of the day!
R: I'm a big believer in training palates, because palate memory is so strong. If you put all the work in when kids are young and help build a strong base palate, then later in life they have something to refer back to. I have countless conversations with guests in the restaurant and at the cooking school about how ingredients or flavours take them back to a certain time or place. Recently, we had one lady in the restaurant who cried after eating our pavlova because it reminded her of her nan's. It's an incredibly rewarding experience.
S: The kids know exactly what fresh vegetables should taste like because they have access to our garden – you could say they've been tainted. Tristan and Chloe are at the age now where they want to get involved in the maintenance – last week they were both out picking ripe plums. They get excited about it and they're pretty lucky in that regard. Tristan also has a new ride-on mower, which he loves.
R: I come from a family of four boys and something my mum drilled into us was that we had to be self-sufficient, in the sense that we were across the housework and that we were able to cook for ourselves. Two of us are chefs, so she must have done something right.
S: Growing up, food was fuel for my family and we never ate out at restaurants. My mum is from Mauritius, so she cooked a lot of curries, stews and fish – and we had rice at every meal. My view of food drastically changed when I met Rod and I realised how enjoyable it was to dine out at beautiful restaurants – and that's how we've raised our children. We eat out a lot as a family and it's really nice that they're both enthusiastic about good food.
R: I'm not a fan of kids' menus. We don't have a kids' menu at The Agrarian Kitchen, although we do offer a kids' pasta,
which has the same ingredients as the pasta we have on offer that week – just a smaller portion. Most kids will eat whatever
their parents are eating, and that's what we do when we go out. We're not looking for the chicken nuggets.
R: More than anything, I hope our kids appreciate learning about where food comes from. It's also a very powerful thing
to be able to cook, so I hope they become competent cooks and are able to pass that on to the next generation. It's a legacy
at the end of the day. I do just want them to be capable and competent in the kitchen; I don't expect them to take over the
family business or anything.
S: I want our kids to acknowledge how much work and effort and energy goes into growing ingredients. They see all the
staff who work in our garden and the time and care that is put into it. I also hope to educate them about food wastage and
the importance of cherishing produce.
The Agrarian Kitchen Eatery, 11a The Avenue, New Norfolk, Tas, (03) 6262 0011,

Dan Hong, executive chef, Merivale, NSW

Wife Rara, daughters Namira (7) and Indira (2), and son Omar (5)
Having kids has influenced the way I cook at home, but not so much at the restaurants. When I cook for them, I usually make simple things like rice or noodles with pieces of protein: chicken wings, roast chicken or maybe a steak. They also love ox tongue and ox tail, and any type of broth or soup. I make sure their food is tasty – I use a lot of fish and soy sauce, but not too many spices yet. They are pretty simple but fussy eaters.
My kids love Asian food, but they don't like any other cuisines. They hate burgers; they don't eat pizza; they rarely eat pasta. Maybe it's because I grew up eating Asian food, and on my days off we rarely eat Western food – I tend to go for Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese or Korean. So I guess they've grown up eating that.
Before the mid-'90s, my mum would cook at home all the time, usually Vietnamese or French food, because my parents lived in Paris for a year after they got married. Then, after my mum opened her Vietnamese restaurants, we would eat a lot of takeaway that she brought home. My mum worked around 100 hours a week and my dad couldn't cook, so that's why I started cooking. I cooked two or three times a week for the family because I was really interested in watching Jamie Oliver and providing for everyone.
Even though I grew up in a Vietnamese family, my mum would still be in tune with what was happening in Sydney. On special occasions we'd go to nice restaurants. But in terms of Vietnamese food, I definitely took for granted how well we ate.
I hope our kids appreciate how much we take them out to eat. Nami and Omar were the first-ever kids to dine at Brae. I asked Dan [Hunter] if he could make something for them because I couldn't not bring them, so he cooked this sick short rib with perfectly trimmed vegetables from the garden. It was the best kids' menu in the country.
All three of them have been to Michelin-starred restaurants, namely Lung King Heen in Hong Kong. Their favourite dumpling is har gow, so we ordered three portions – one portion was about $25. I said, "You better eat all of those dumplings. They are three-Michelin-star dumplings right there, so you better appreciate every bite!"
We're a bit obsessed with mukbang [a Korean food phenomenon where you watch people eating on YouTube]. It was a way for me to make Nami eat more, I would say to her, "Why don't you just do mukbang and I'll film you?" So now it's her thing. I film her eating and she ends up smashing a whole bowl of noodles. Now we just need to buy the high-definition microphone that records the sounds.
I think it's very important to sit down together and eat as a family. And now that I'm in an executive chef role, I do have more time and a much better work-life balance. On my days off, we always go out to restaurants and eat together, and every Monday night we go to my mum's house for dinner – it's a tradition.
My mum looks after the kids every Thursday and will cook up a big pot of pho or a nice clear soup that the kids eat with rice or noodles. Trying to get our youngest (Indy) to eat is quite hard, but whenever she goes to Mum's house she'll eat anything. My kids
love my mum's food. She has a magic touch that even I don't have.
I hope my kids will have a bit more of an open mind later in life when it comes to food. I know they will, but they do go through their phases. When I was making dinner recently, I thought I'd put a bit of butter and some chicken-stock powder in the rice cooker to add an extra hit of flavour. They detected it straight away – Nami liked it, but the others didn't. They know what they like to eat now but then maybe later on they'll change their mind.