The blade came into view like a version of Excalibur — forged by an Avalonian elf and blessed with dragon’s breath — as the Chef’s knife easily sliced through the flesh of the slippery rainbow trout skin.
The Palace Kitchen was our Camelot.
And Chef Tom Douglas was our culinary king.
Apologies up front for all the fantastical allusions… I’m waist deep in George R.R Martin’s Game of Thrones HBO series while simultaneously reading the first book in the series.
It was an early Tuesday morning and the popular Palace Kitchen restaurant in downtown Seattle was empty. Inside chairs were still upside down on their tables and the place was filled with the kind of quiet that greets you when visiting a school that’s out of session.
But inside the kitchen was alive.
The massive stainless steel grill emanated heat. And standing in front of those was Chef Tom wearing a smile and his signature fluffy hair pleasantly fluffed.
My eight-year-old daughter Amelia lugged over the rainbow trout. Still packed on ice since the night before when she and Sophie her eleven-year-old sister had caught the behemoth at our local trout farm for this kid-friendly feast.
“Do you know how much this fish weighs?” Chef Tom asked the girls hoisting our catch to the cutting board.
“Seven and a half pounds!” Sophie trumpeted as if we were the only kings in the castle (and in fact we were, aside from Chef Tom, his lovely assistant Jessica and a couple of camera men who were filming the segment for a cooking-with-kids web series.
Chef Tom demonstrated how to pluck “pin bones” from the trout.
“Your turn.” Chef Tom says offering Sophie Excalibur.
At times Sophie can be shy, but when it comes to the kitchen there is no fear—and she takes hold of the knife as easily as young King Arthur pulls the sword from the stone—it is her destiny.
Every month Chef Tom Douglas is named “Top” something or other. Top Chef, Top Restaurateur. And this month he was named number one most influential Seattle people by a popular Seattle magazine… Howard Schulz CEO of Starbucks was listed as number two.
Watching Chef Tom teach the girls how to cook it’s easy to understand his popularity: Gregarious, easy going…he’s like a fun uncle who just happens to be famous and believes in the importance of cooking with kids as a fun way to get them engaged in a life long relationship with healthy food as “comfort” food.
Everybody has heard the term “comfort food.” Craving food that makes us feel comforted when we eat it.
Advertisers have long exploited sociological research that unconscious impulses established at a young age through learning and emotion are often what drive us. The stronger the emotion, the more clearly an experience is learned.
According to one of my favorite books, The Culture Code by Dr. Clotaire Rapaille about why “we humans do what we do.”
“The combination of the experience and its accompanying emotion create something known widely (and coined as such by Konrad Lorenz) as an imprint. Once an imprint occurs, it strongly conditions our thought processes and shapes our future actions. Each imprint helps make us more of who we are. The combination of these imprints defines us.”
Cooking with kids is important to me because many of my most memorable personal imprints came after my parents divorced. When I was with my mom (a former vegan) I had a lot of happy memories eating healthy food. When I was with my dad for summers (a Wonderbread-and-bologna kind-of-guy) I have happy memories eating Twinkies and processed food all while watching movies like Rocky.
I believe those experiences left a “food imprint” on me that has left me confused about healthy eating and “comfort” food my whole life.
I watch Sophie methodically slices the trout into fillets as Amelia wears a beaming smile filled with a shy pride as Chef Tom compliments her on the coring and slicing of two Pink Lady apples.
“The potatoes are from Prosser Farm,” Chef Tom says referring to his garden as we cut the imperfectly perfect Yukon Gold potatoes.
Amelia opens up the oven hatch and carefully slides a few skinny apple wood logs onto the flame. Chef Tom scratches at the grill grates with a long brush.
Brushed with olive oil and daintily dusted with salt and pepper the Rainbow trout fillets, Romaine Hearts, slices of Yukon Gold potatoes and Pink Lady apples are lined up over the flame.
The restaurant is infused with the flavors of our meal. Sweetness from the apples as the natural sugars bubble to the surface, the savory grilled Rainbow trout tastes like something Huckleberry Finn might catch and cook next to an open flame beside the easy flowing Mississippi.
“That trout didn’t stand a chance,” Chef Tom teases as we all look down at our cleaned plates.
He’s right…that trout didn’t stand a chance.