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Chef/owner Jonathon Sawyer of The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland cooks food that is both adult- and kid-friendly at his restaurant, including the seasonal carrots.

All Grown Up

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Kids’ menus have hit their growth spurt, ditching the lackluster chicken fingers to mimic the flavor-forward, locally grown meals that mom and dad eat.

By Sonya Chudgar March 2015 Chef Profiles

Chef Jonathon Sawyer is having a moment. He’s rhapsodizing about the pork chop at his Cleveland restaurant, The Greenhouse Tavern, voice cresting as he describes the delicate flavors, the opaque gravy, the creamy purée that finishes the plating.

“It’s a saltimbocca, so it has a little sage, a little prosciutto, a little smoked ham,” he says rhythmically. “There’s a braised belly, a little seared piece of scrapple, and then pommel purée and red-eye gravy. The idea is that it’s using the whole pig to develop that dish,” he adds.

The nose-to-tail movement is nothing new for avant-garde diners, but Chef Sawyer isn’t describing a dish he’ll be cooking tonight for guests in their 20s, 40s, or 60s.

He’s describing the most popular dish kids order.

Move over, chicken fingers and hot dogs. Upscale kids’ menus are maturing as youngsters kick away the high chairs to pull up a seat at the grown-up table. Children’s menus in high-end restaurants of late rely on methods consistent with adult menus: seasonal sourcing, farm-to-table ingredients, gorgeous presentation, mocktails, and even a three-course experience. The movement goes hand-in-hand with the values of today’s parents who eschew the processed foods of generations past and transfer their ideals to their offspring.

Children, for their part, are responding favorably, squelching the stereotype about tots who don’t eat their greens by eagerly sampling charred Brussels sprouts and textured meats.

Refurbished kids’ menus take many shapes at gourmet restaurants. Some come with a fancy, albeit tongue-in-cheek, classification, such as Chef Luc Dendievel’s Foodie-in-Training menu at Härth, an eatery in the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner in Virginia; other restaurants hang on to the kids’ menu moniker, but furnish it with grown-up dishes such as grilled salmon and crudités with hummus.

Another take is upscale eateries that evade kids’ menus altogether, as chefs encourage children to order off the adult menu and the kitchen simply modifies the portion size and spice level.

That’s the case at Chef Sawyer’s The Greenhouse Tavern. The restaurant has a kids’ menu, but servers embolden young diners to take a crack at their parents’ menu first.

“I like kids to feel like they’re adults when they’re in the restaurant,” Chef Sawyer says. “The approach is, there’s enough on the menu for them to get excited about, and it’s easy enough for us to adapt.”

His pork dish, for example, incorporates tastes many children have never sampled before. “Kids don’t normally experience that many flavors and textures of pork on the plate,” he explains. “I think it’s kind of fascinating for them to try the pork sauce and then the firmer, more animal flavor of the loin, and then the silky, luxurious pork belly.”

Perhaps the most blatant example of kids’ menus ditching the training wheels is the Foodie-in-Training menu at Härth. The offerings include starters, such as a Roasted Celeriac Soup and Truffled Fried Mac & Cheese, and main plates range from the Fish of the Day to Pork and Veal Meatballs. The emphasis is on clean and lean proteins and farm-to-table sourcing, but the challenge for Chef Dendievel is to make each dish colorful and appetizing. He achieves this by adding fruits to his sauces or a touch of honey to the plating, which also complements children’s palates with a sweeter component. “When I cook for kids, I try to make it a bit more friendly,” he explains. “Kids eat with their eyes.”

When Chef Dendievel joined Härth in May, no kids’ menu existed. But his boredom with the options that restaurants typically presented to his own children, ages 6 and 9, encouraged him to stop treating children’s food at Härth with kiddie gloves. “I thought, why not serve kids other things, not the traditional fried chicken or frozen pizza?” he says. “They can experience a dining ambiance that’s the same as their parents’.

“We don’t try to reinvent the wheel here,” he adds. “But using down-to-earth ingredients and making basic dishes with a restaurant-style presentation for kids is a little more fun.”

To that end, even the cocktail revolution has extended to the under-21 crowd: Chef Dendievel’s list of mocktails includes the Apple Snap, an apple cider mixed with homemade non-alcoholic ginger beer and garnished with lemon, and the chuckle-inducing No-Jito, with white cranberry and apple juice, soda, lime, and muddled mint. Likewise, Chef Paul Virant, owner of three Illinois restaurants, concocts his mocktails with house-made syrups to provide a sweet, alcohol-free sipper to kids and teens.

What’s Cooking for Kids

Besides bright presentation and sweet sensations, another lesson to keep in mind when cooking for children is to have choices they can engage with. At Urbana in Washington, D.C., Chef Ethan McKee achieves this with the build-your-own-pizza offering on the kids’ menu. The kitchen sends an uncooked pizza crust smothered with fresh tomato sauce to the table, and children decorate it themselves with toppings. Choices include all-natural Amish chicken breast, spinach, and pepperoni.

“The pizza has been a really popular option,” Chef McKee says. “Kids have fun with it, and the parents can sneak in a couple healthful toppings, so they’re still able to get some protein and good vegetables on there. It also gives the kids something to stay busy with while the table waits for its food.”

The House-Made Tagliatelle pasta is a close second to the build-your-own pizza at Urbana. Chef McKee’s bolognese sauce is heavy on vegetables, and for precocious diners who order the Grilled Norwegian Salmon and Grilled Amish Chicken Breast, sides are wholesome veggies such as cauliflower, Swiss chard, or spinach—whichever is in season.

It’s imperative that kids’ menus include vegetables, the chef explains, and not focus simply on fried foods, even as sides. Apple sauce and carrots are two age-old stand-ins for fruit and veggie servings on kids’ menus, but they won’t set the stage for kids to make healthy choices for the rest of their lives, Chef McKee says—however, if kids eat a pasta sauce rich in meat and veggies, they may be tempted to incorporate greens and root vegetables into their own sauces and dips as grown-ups.

Asked if kids actually eat the mélange of vegetables smattered across his dishes or if the stereotype of kids who abhor greens holds true, Chef McKee laughs. “I’ll be honest, some days I’m able to get my kids to eat certain things, and other days not. I try to look at as many plates as I can coming back to the kitchen from the dining room, whether adults’ or kids’, and we don’t notice too much food left on the plate, so that’s a good sign. Whether the parents are eating the rest of the veggies is another story,” he adds with a chuckle.

Chefs also advise cooking foods without spice for kids, who know to ask for hot sauce or sriracha if their palates can handle it. Another tip is to create food such as flatbreads or sliders that are petite enough for small hands to grasp, and to avoid strong, potentially pungent flavors, such as certain fish or bitter herbs.

Agents of Change

Like Chefs Sawyer, Dendievel, and McKee, many culinary professionals who are abjuring the stereotypical kids’ meals in the upscale sector are parents themselves. They’re part of an evolution embodied by Generation X and Millennials, who are already raising young ones or just entering the life stage of starting families. Chefs say that this age group’s values rebel against the bland, microwave-happy cuisine of their parents’ generation to emphasize earth-friendly habits; it’s no coincidence the culinary style at upscale restaurants is shifting to local, organic, and natural foods.

While restaurants are hardly on the soapbox about the evils of processed food and the importance of natural ingredients, like some organizations or political groups, chefs say they are certainly listening to demands from their customers. Many parents, they explain, walk into their restaurants and inquire about good food options for their kids.

The importance of offering mom- and dad-endorsed foods at restaurants is underscored by the fact that in the U.S., away-from-home food purchases dipped 2 percent in 2013, while expenditures for food at home increased 1.4 percent, according to the most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As dining out decreases slightly, chefs say it’s vital to parents that, the ingredients and foods they cherish at home are also available to their kids—not just themselves—at restaurants.

“The main thing for me, when I’m out in a restaurant with my family, is that it’s nice to have those options at least put on the table and there’s an attempt to get kids to eat healthy, versus going into a restaurant where the only things on the menu for kids are fried chicken tenders, french fries, or a cheeseburger,” Chef McKee says.

The policy at scratch-dining restaurant Clay Pigeon Food and Drink in Fort Worth, Texas, is to encourage children to order from the regular menu; if they don’t like the dish they order, the parents are not charged for it, and Chef/owner Marcus Paslay says he’ll cook them something they do like, whether it’s buttery noodles or a flatbread.

“We’re always trying to expose ourselves and our customers to new ingredients and better ways of doing things,” Chef Paslay says. “It’s important for kids so they grow up knowing what seasonal food is, and their palates recognize when they’re lacking something fresh—the more we can expand those palates while they’re young, the better for them.”

Chef Dendievel compares the good-food education to teaching children a new language. Biology proves that children’s brains go through critical periods when they’re young that make them especially receptive to learning new forms of information, such as a new language or an instrument; if teaching a child French is advised when they’re young, why not apply the same science to food?

“I see parents sometimes look at a menu and say, ‘OK, they have a pizza, you have something for the stomach, and I don’t have to worry about it.’ But I don’t see it that way,” Chef Den-dievel says.

Experts say the exposure to food processing and the average person’s knowledge of seasonality have improved radically from one or two decades ago. Sure, kids may always prefer a chicken nugget to a chopped salad, “but we’ve got to give them the chance to turn it down instead of assuming they won’t like it,” Chef Paslay says. “We’re all trainable; we’ll eat what’s in front of us if we don’t know any better. So it’s just a matter of how we start kids off.”

Items such as kale are a perfect gateway ingredient for kids, as it opens them up to more complex, healthful flavors, says Chef Virant, owner of Vie, Vistro, and Perennial Virant restaurants in Illinois. Vistro, his latest eatery that opened last fall in Hinsdale, is geared toward families, with finger foods like Fried Fermented Pickles with dill and garlic mayonnaise scattered throughout the menu. Servers also encourage kids to chat with the pizza chef to learn about the giant wood-burning oven, and mocktails are a popular selection.

“That was the approach: Let’s just do kids’ and adults’ food on the same menu,” Chef Virant says. “That way, there’s not any pressure. I see a lot of parents who cater to their kids and say, ‘This is all they eat.’ Having a menu like this that’s approachable, maybe it’ll push them to look at something else and try it.”

Examples of straightforward, flavorful dishes he hypes for kids include the Crispy Tuscan Kale, which is flash-fried kale with brown butter and honey lemon—“How can that be bad? It’s like chips!”—Mac ‘n’ Cheese from the wood oven, and the Smoked Ham Quesadilla.

Back in Cleveland at The Greenhouse Tavern, Chef Sawyer is grateful kids’ dining has trended away from habits of the late ’90s and early 2000s, “when it was all about tricking these kids into eating cauliflower stuffed into macaroni and cheese or adding ground-up carrots to chocolate chip cookies,” he says. “Master Chef and popular culture have made kids interested in food in a way they never were before. They want to eat better food.”

A saltimbocca pork dish portioned for kids, he adds, is a step in the right direction.