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When I’m cooking dinner for other people, it’s nice to have a sidekick who will skip the sycophantics and give me his or her brutally honest opinion about the food, so I don't embarrass myself. But forthright help is never around when you need it most—unless you have a toddler at hand. (And if you do, and if he or she loves to cook, this is your LAST CHANCE to sign them up for our Ultimate Kid Cook Contest.)
Last night I met Henry, a three-year-old with the husky voice of Kathleen Turner and the jaunty mannerisms of a Connery-era James Bond. Dinner was to be quick and painless (stuffed squid and pasta with sausage and arugula), but I was in an unfamiliar kitchen and soon needed a crutch. A knee-high, toothy-smiled crutch.
"What are you doing?” Henry asked, staring at the sausage links I was about to brown.
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
“That looks like poopie,” he gasped. He was right. I squeezed the sausages out of their casings and into a hot pan. But Henry thought I could do better.
“I want yogurt,” he declared.
“Yogurt’s like ice cream,” his mother answered. “We’re having pasta.”
“I want eggs,” Henry wheezed.
Henry quickly figured out I was making neither of these and fired up his own stove, a little wooden number outfitted with two burners and a pizza oven.
“What are you doing?” (I once worked for a squat French chef who’d yell the exact same thing, hundreds of times every night. Henry's inquisitions are more sincere.)
“Burning the sausage. Thanks for pointing that out.”
“What are you doing?”
“Stuffing the squid. Have you ever seen a squid?”
“That looks nasty.”
“I can’t argue with that. What are you making?”
“I can’t compete with bacon. What else?”
“What are you putting on your hot dogs?”
Henry finished his dinner a few minutes ahead of me and loaded it into his miniature Radio Flyer (an ingenious tabletop concept Grant Achatz is sure to crib). Chez Henry’s menu included wooden pizza, a miniature stuffed owl sitting in a miniature sauté pan (his spin on the classic-though-controversial ortolan preparation, no doubt), the ethereal bacon-wrapped hot dogs and half a cupcake. Only the cupcake was actually consumed.
My dinner wasn’t as triumphant: The pasta was undercooked, the sausage overcooked; the squid had taken a tumble and was rolling around on the floor. Although he was stuffed with cupcakes and imaginary bacon, Henry grabbed a fork and sampled some pasta. “It’s undercooked, isn’t it?” I asked. Henry chewed slowly, thoughtfully. “No,” he rasped, and smiled. I almost believed him.