“Hey, how are you guys? Welcome to Noodle Kids.”
Chef Jonathon Sawyer welcomes parents and their kids to Noodlecat, his downtown Cleveland restaurant. It’s inspired by Tokyo ramen shops and New York City noodle houses.
Today, it’s party-central for the whole Sawyer family.
“I’m Amelia Sawyer. This is Louisiana Sawyer and that’s Catcher Sawyer."
Catcher is 10. Louisiana is 7.
“Lou, would you like to tell her what we’re doing?” her mom, Amelia, inquires.
“Well,” says Louisiana, “We’re going to let people choose like their kind of whatever it’s called noodles, and put the stuff in, like edamame and that stuff.”
The noodle bar
Chef Sawyer shows the families how a noodle bar works. “Start over there, we’ll write our name.”
It’s Simone. She’s 5.
“Simone, how are you?” says the chef. “I love your dress, and your tiara, and your necklace. So that girl with the blond hair over there, sort of, almost the same length as yours, that’s my daughter. Her name’s Louisiana.”
Parents and kids bring empty bowls to a long table laden with edamame, freeze-dried peas and corn, curly kale, seaweed, scallions, poached potatoes, confit of pork, char siu bacon, hotdog octopus, poached chicken, tofu, peanuts and cashews, spicy red ginger, sesame seeds, miso, crispy shallots, garlic and seaweed.
“Seaweed? Can I have one?" asks Sawyer, sneaking a snack while his kids ladle out ingredients.
“It’s nori that they pulverize with a little bit of vegetable oil. I think it’s a really good beginner’s version of what sushi nori really eventually is. So, I like it as a snack. They like it as a snack. Do you like seaweed?”
“Yes, I love it, says Louisiana. And so does Catcher. “Of course, I do.”
Once the kids pick their proteins, vegetables and condiments, broth and ramen noodles will be added.
“And that’s it,” says Chef Sawyer. “So you go ahead and take the bowl, you walk down and you build everything that you’d want to, and then we go from there.”
A family cook book
The event is to promote Sawyer’s new cookbook, “Noodle Kids.” And to further his mission of encouraging adventurous eating.
"If this is the first time a kid puts a piece of seaweed into a bowl, or a carrot, then we’ve done our job. And our hope is that at home they go back and they have the conversation with their parents about this experience, and then take it to the next level. ‘Hey, where can we go buy those carrots together? Hey, where can we plant those carrots in our garden or community garden?' And they continue to learn.”
There’s only one rule today: Each bowl has to have at least two vegetables.
“If you have five vegetables, you get an A-plus. If you have seven vegetables, you get two thumbs up, smiley-face, A-plus-check-plus.”
Sawyer explains to a mom that the rule applies to her, too. “You still have to have two vegetables.”
“I could have a beer, though, right?” And she can.
The Sawyer kids want their dad to tell a joke.
“Dad, say something that the Noodlecat would say,” Catcher prompts.
“Um, alright," says Chef Sawyer. “What are the best men? Say, ‘I don’t know what are the best men?’”
Louisiana complies, “I don’t know. What are the best men?"
“Ramen,” says Sawyer.
Ryan Fisher of Tremont brought 3-year-old Wren to the party.
“Wren, do you want to try an edamame?"
At 3, she’s not a picky eater.
“She’s generally really good," says her proud papa. "Aren’t you? Yeah, mostly? So we’re going to get you a tasty bowl. Let’s see what Mom’s got for you here.”
Kim Miller of Cleveland is here with 5-year-old Simone.
“She’s actually a big fan of ramen. We make it a lot at home. And when all else fails, noodles are always a go-to. We can throw a few veggies in there.”
The approachable noodle
Chef Sawyer wants more parents to use their noodles.
“Noodles are universally approachable, and that’s why we chose it as a subject for our first family-based book. We hope to write more books about how we cook, and how we farm, and how we eat together, but really, who doesn’t like noodles?”
“How many pieces of bacon do you want?” Catcher asks Nicole.“The pieces are really thick so, just one,” Nicole replies.
“How about some of the red stuff?” Nicole’s Dad asks. “That looks really pretty.”
“Um,” says Nicole after a little thought. “I’ll just try one to just try it out.”
Not picky at all
It’s no surprise that Chef Sawyer’s kids, Catcher and Louisiana, will eat almost anything.
“Clams are like my favorite seafood, so, yeah," says Louisiana.
Chef Sawyer is proud of her affinity for clams.
“Both raw and cooked, big and small, poached and not. And my son, for whatever reason, loves snails. And I know lots of adults that won’t even touch snails.”
Catcher can cook his favorite vegetable all by himself.
“Artichokes. I boil them.”
At present, he has no plans to be a chef like his father.
"I’m thinking of being an actor.”
Louisiana confesses there’s one vegetable she doesn’t like at all. “Tomatoes. They’re too squishy.”
But she had to try them. Even her mom has to try whatever Chef Sawyer cooks.
“I’m a very non-adventurous eater, but we have a rule. If he puts brain in front of me, I have to try it once. It’s the same with the kids. Sometimes there’s fights back, but for the most part they’ll try everything once.”
Cooking with their parents opens young minds
The James Beard award-winning chef says it’s easier to get them to try, when you let them help cook.
“My kids started with soft tofu and a butter knife from age 2. And it was the greatest thing to get them to learn the mechanics of holding something in one hand, cutting it with the other hand. And then you progress. You can’t just start with, ‘Hey, here’s a prime rib, kid, go ahead and start cutting it.'
"But the conversation has to start, and the safety has to start somewhere. You can’t allow, I think, a little bit of fear to allow you to not go in the kitchen at all.”
Messy is OK
The chef says you can ask kids to help clean up, but while they’re cooking don’t expect them to be tidy.
"That way they can have fun, and they don’t feel like they’re doing something wrong when they’re making a mess. When really they’re just making ravioli, or really they’re just making gnocchi, there’s going to be flour everywhere. Part of the fun is getting messy and getting tactile and using your hands.”
Jonathon Sawyer owns two other restaurants and a catering service, but now that he’s a dad, he doesn’t work nights anymore.
“I see them every single morning and every single night. And to me, at the end of the day, they’re the No. 1 choice for me, not the restaurants.”
But at the Sawyers, family time mostly happens when they get together to cook.
“Doing anything in the kitchen whether it’s the dishes or cutting tofu, you’re slowing down the day, you’re forgetting about, or hopefully, forgetting about the emails and the Twitter, and you’re just engaging your family in the kitchen.”