How I Turned My Kids into Adventurous, Rabbit Kidney-Loving Eaters
"Travel, if you can make it happen, is one of the best educations you can possibly give a child."
A minor jolt of turbulence woke me up from my brief nap. Still groggy, I looked over at my wife and daughters in the seats next to me, and for a minute thought I must still be asleep, in the middle of some weird dream. Steffi, bracketing the other side of our row of four seats, was passed out cold, head canted upward, mouth open, a single line of drool arcing down her lower lip. Sophie, then six years old, was also asleep, snuggled up tight with her American Girl doll. And then there was Olivia, shirtless, her magnificent three-year-old belly hanging over the seat belt, watching Cinderella on the iPad, and munching fistfuls of the sausage I’d cut up for her and alternating it with bites of baguette dipped in extra virgin olive oil.
I rubbed my eyes, tried to shake off the cruising-altitude cobwebs, and looked over again.
The scene was the same. The toplessness, the olive oil, the newfound love of high-end pork products: Olivia and Sophie, over the course of the previous five weeks in France, had gone native.
It was among my proudest moments as a father.
Beginning in 2014, my wife and I decided that every two or three years, instead of sending the kids to camp—the expense of even day camps is high enough to make buying ten kilos of Périgord truffles seem reasonable—we would spend the summer, or at least a solid chunk of it, somewhere in rural Europe. Between the tens of thousands of airline miles I accumulate each year—easily enough for free tickets for the family—and the almost shockingly reasonable cost of renting a house outside of major cities, it’s a break-even proposition at worst and a money-saving one at best. And the education that the kids get is incomparable—especially from a culinary standpoint.
Our first summer in Europe was back in 2014. Sophie was three and Olivia a mere seven months old. Essentially, it was like traveling with one child and one sack of potatoes: Olivia was too young to even sit up on her own, and since we didn’t think to bring along her high chair to Torre Colimena, the small village on the Ionian coast in Puglia where we rented a friend’s family beach home, she joined us at mealtimes on the deck propped up in a plastic bucket, set on top of the table between Steffi and I, being spoon-fed burrata.
But last summer, both of the girls were old enough to really appreciate the experience. Through a friend of a friend (of a friend!), we rented a lovely three-bedroom, two-bathroom home in Les Baux, a tiny hamlet outside of Bédoin, right at the base of Mt. Ventoux. (Les Baux should not be confused with Les-Baux-de-Provence, which is an entirely different place.) It was called La Maison des Peintres, owned by two warm, passionate English ex-pats, a cellist and a painter, hence the name.
We were right in the heart of wine country, and twice a week Steffi, Sophie, and Olivia joined me on visits to the various wineries I’d arranged to check out. Châteauneuf-du-Pape was an easy 45-minute drive, Tavel about the same, Lirac a quick jaunt…in other words, we were in what the family started referring to as “Daddy’s Happy Place.”
“Pastis, pastis, pastis!” the girls cried, as they did every evening around 5:30. “That’s all you ever talk about!”
They could be forgiven for feeling that way: As a dedicated pastis lover since my college days (you can imagine how well that went over in Yuengling Lager country), I had, since we arrived in Les Baux a few weeks earlier, fallen into a passionate love affair with a local bottling called Henri Bardouin, a cinnamon- and cardamom-forward pastis that I drank every day before starting the nightly dinner preparations—usually some combination of the miraculous local sausages, impossibly fresh Provençal vegetables, several goat’s milk cheeses in various stages of ripeness, a baguette from our favorite boulangerie, Olivera Ravel, in Bédoin, and olive oil from the farmer whose bottles we bought almost weekly at the Friday-night market in town. And rosé…so much rosé.
“Fair enough,” I told the girls, “but mom and I have a secret that’ll probably make you guys talk about something as much as I talk about pastis…”
I let my voice trail off suggestively. They froze, as kids do, like mannequins, embodying corporeally their excitement. Finally, Sophie said, “Which is…?”
“Nothing really,” I said, “Just that we got a reservation for when Nana and Zay are here next week at a restaurant that specializes in cooking ingredients over fire…”
Sophie, it has to be pointed out, has always been obsessed with food. From the time she was old enough to stand up, she joined me in the kitchen as “sous chef” to help stir, season, and scoop. One night in Philadelphia, we were at the casual restaurant of one of the country’s top Italian chefs. He came over to say hello, and I introduced him to then-three-year-old Sophie.
“Sophie, this is Marc Vetri, the chef and owner. He actually runs and owns this whole restaurant!”
“So?” she said, unimpressed. “I’m Daddy’s sous chef, which is better.”
To Marc’s everlasting credit, he smiled and said, without missing a beat, “You’re absolutely right, Sophie. That is better.”
A gentle breeze ran through the living room, carrying with it the smell of lavender from the porch. The girls looked at each other and scrunched up their eyebrows in a look of disbelief as the reality of what I was saying sunk in. I took a casual sip of my pastis. “Wait, Dad, are you serious?” Sophie asked, her voice rising in pitch. “Are we going to Francis Mallmann’s new restaurant?”
I’d had a magnificent lunch at his excellent Fuegos de Apalta, at the gorgeous Montes winery in Chile, earlier that year. When I told the kids about it, Sophie, as is her wont, managed to find the Chef’s Table episode about him on Netflix, watched it in its entirety, and from then on was obsessed with his unique brand of open-fire cooking. Other kids her age were transfixed by Sponge Bob Square Pants and an ever-rotating cast of Disney princesses; Sophie wanted nothing more than to meet Francis Mallmann, Dominique Crenn, and Dan Barber.
“Uh-huh,” I said, trying to suppress a smile. “We’re having lunch there next week.”
She let out a yawp like the ones in that scene in Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams gets all the students to stand on top of their desks and let loose. We would be going there the following week with my parents when they came to visit…unless Sophie spontaneously combusted from excitement in the interim. When the time finally came for our meal at Restaurant Francis Mallmann at Château La Coste—or, for Sophie, our religious pilgrimage—she was not disappointed, offering us all enthusiastic tasting notes on every dish she tasted.
Last summer in France—with one-day layovers in Madrid on both ends for connecting flights, during which time we explored the city and its infinite variety of ham—was a game-changer for Sophie. She had always been a remarkably willing eater of whatever Steffi and I put in front of her, but we never fully understood the true extent of her culinary open-mindedness until those five weeks in Europe. Olivia, who is a less-adventurous eater, also pushed herself, discovering an abiding affection for sausage in all its glorious Provençal permutations, from duck-and-fig to classic pork and everything in between.
But it was Sophie who went all in. Escargots à la Bourguignonne? Oui. (Olivia, not a fan of the texture of snails, demolished whatever remaining garlic butter Sophie had left, gleefully drowning piece after piece of baguette into it.) Grenouille à la Provençale? Pourquoi non?
At the end of our month in Provence, we packed up the little Renault Megane rental car and spent several days driving to Paris, passing through key wine regions along the way. Our first stop, in Beaujolais, included a day at Duboeuf—I had the incredible honor of tasting with Georges and Franck Duboeuf while Steffi and the girls spent the morning at Hameau Duboeuf, essentially a theme park dedicated to educating children and adults about wine; it’s an amazing place and, to paraphrase the Guide Michelin, definitely worth the trip. The girls, during lunch at the excellent Café des Deux Horloges, discovered a newfound respect for Burgundian cheeses. In Chablis the next night, they were tickled to learn that it’s okay to eat mussels straight from the shell, using them as de facto spoons for the intensely flavorful broth. The inevitable spilling down the front of their shirts just added to the fun…and they loved it when I dribbled a bit of the broth, too.
We have always adhered to two simple rules when it comes to the kids trying new things at the table: You don’t have to like everything, but you can’t pass judgement until you’ve tasted it; and you have to taste everything twice, because unfamiliar textures might make you think you don’t like the flavor of a dish even if you do, and a second bite allows you to take that variable out of the equation.
Which is how Sophie discovered her new favorite food: Rabbit kidneys. I ordered them as an appetizer at Chez La Vieille, in Paris, during our final Saturday night in France. Sophie looked over at my plate, the kidneys glistening in the dimly lit dining room, and asked if they were lima beans.
“Nope,” I said, “they’re kidneys.”
“Like, the organs that help you pee?”
“Sort of,” I said, “but these are from a rabbit.”
“So you’re eating rabbit pee? Cool! Can I try them?”
I cut one of them in half, tore off a piece of the crostini they come draped over, swiped it all through the glorious demi-glace, and offered it to her. She took a bite and theatrically rolled back her eyes, mock-fell against the back of her seat, and let out a hearty, breathy, “Mon dieu!”
We shared the rest of the plate, more or less 50-50. At the end of the meal, after I’d tasted my way through a respectable swath of Chez La Vieille’s remarkable Chartreuse collection and chatted with chef Daniel Rose at the bar, the four of us made our way downstairs and past the bar toward the exit. I introduced Sophie to chef Rose, who was engaging, kind, and patient. Sophie was star-struck, and spent the rest of the night talking about “a night I’ll remember toujours!”
Travel, if you can make it happen, is one of the best educations you can possibly give a child. The summer wasn’t without its problems—no trip ever is. Olivia was diagnosed with chicken pox soon after we arrived. (Turns out it was hand, foot, and mouth disease; regardless, a combination of olive oil and lavender oil as a poultice worked wonders.) I caught pink eye twice in a single week. The girls learned how far apart the United States truly is from France when it was time to say their tearful goodbyes to the friends they had made in Les Baux.
But it was worth it, every last minute. Next summer, we’re hoping to spend two months in Italy, ideally somewhere near the Tuscan Coast. In the meantime, the ghosts of our time together in Provence keep on revealing themselves, and often at the most unexpected moments.
This past December, a week before Sophie’s seventh birthday, I offered to cook her anything she wanted for the big night. She thought for a moment and then said, “I’d like rognons de lapin.”
“I’ll look,” I told her, “but rabbit kidneys are tough to find in Philadelphia.”
Which they are. The best I could do was chicken livers, but they aren’t even close. Still, I framed them as similar because they’re both organ meats, which she had developed a taste for ever since returning home last July. She was fine with that, and on the night of her birthday, I sliced up a baguette from our local French bakery, grilled it up with some butter and olive oil, and served it with several scoops of sautéed chicken livers with apples and reduced balsamic vinegar.
Her verdict? “Not bad. I mean, it’s no Chez La Vieille, but I like it!”
She got up from her seat at the kitchen table, walked over to mine, and planted a balsamic-sticky kiss on my cheek.