A little after 11 on a recent Saturday morning, nine children -- each accompanied by a parent or grandparent -- crowded around the chef's table in the kitchen of Ristorante Tosca in downtown Washington. One 6-year-old girl sat on her grandmother's lap. All were nervously quiet.
It was opening day of Chef Cesare Lanfranconi's two-day children's culinary camp, and they had just spent the first few minutes in the bathroom, washing their hands. Then as Lanfranconi, looming large behind the steel counter, told them about the need for cleanliness -- "so you won't get germs from the food and you won't give the food germs" -- they sat timidly and listened.
But not for long.
Within minutes, the four boys and five girls -- ages 5 to 10 -- were at the counter, helping to pick the best leaves from sprigs of fresh basil and learning how to peel a clove of garlic. "Give it a whack!" Lanfranconi said, demonstrating with the heel of his hand. Garlic cloves skittered across the counter, some onto the floor, as the children followed his lead.
Passing around a bowl of fresh pine nuts, Lanfranconi had each child taste one, and then he offered almond cookies to sample. They were among the ingredients for the lunch the children would prepare: potato gnocchi in tomato and pesto sauces, and fruit strudel for dessert.
It was a menu capable of intimidating accomplished home cooks. But the children, by then armed with small kitchen towels to clean up their own small portions of the counter, simply pitched in.
They watched as Lanfranconi put their cloves of garlic into a blender with the pine nuts, then dropped in the basil they had picked and added olive oil from a squeeze bottle. They giggled when he told them he had a "secret" ingredient for the pesto -- "Don't tell anyone!" -- two tablespoons of fresh ricotta cheese. Then he added two heaping tablespoons of ricotta and a big handful of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to finish the sauce.
Lanfranconi, who opened Tosca three years ago after spending six years at Roberto Donna's Galileo, is the father of three daughters -- Tosca, 10, for whom the restaurant is named; Tea (pronounced Tay-uh), 8; and Caterina, 4 -- and the weekend culinary camp is an extension of demonstrations he has done for his daughters' classes.
Disappointed with the quality of food in school cafeterias, Lanfranconi said he hoped the camp sessions would be the first step toward a larger program to introduce students to how food should taste and help them learn more about where it comes from.
Ultimately, Lanfranconi said, he would like to have a program like the one sponsored by California chef Alice Waters's Chez Panisse Foundation. Last month, the Berkeley Unified School District signed an agreement with the foundation to create a curriculum that will involve all 9,000 of the district's students in each phase of food preparation, from planting to cooking. The foundation has given the school district a $3.8 million grant for the first three years of the program.
Lanfranconi said that he wants to create a "passion of cooking" among today's young people but that there simply isn't enough information being provided to students now.
As the first day's session continued, Lanfranconi told his charges about how he buys peaches and blueberries from Black Rock Orchards in Carroll County, Md., and works with other local farmers who grow fruits and vegetables especially for his kitchen. Then he showed them how to separate a peach from its pit and chop the fruit into chunks for the strudel. "Take your time and remember to keep your fingers away from the knife," Lanfranconi cautioned as he handed them their tools.
After sweetening the fruit with a bit of honey, he offered them pieces to "taste, not to eat." Then he added crumbled almond cookies to the fruit filling.
Massimo Fabbri, whom Lanfranconi introduced as his sous-chef, or top assistant, took over for the strudel making. Fabbri demonstrated how to drizzle melted butter over the sheets of phyllo dough, then spread it out with a brush, stacking five sheets before placing a line of filling near one edge and rolling up everything like a "big, giant cigar."
The children lined up for their turn to work with the strudel as Fabbri offered encouragement. "Brava! You did a great job," Fabbri told the girl who earlier had shyly clung to her grandmother.
To make the gnocchi, others in the group used their knives to peel already-cooked potatoes, which then were put through a giant ricer. Gathering his students around him, Lanfranconi had them put on plastic gloves for what he said was "the assignment . . . my grandma used to give me": rolling out the soft dough into ropes.
"It's like Play-Doh," he said, "but treat it gently. You have to be delicate."
Each child meticulously used one of Lanfranconi's knives to cut a rope of dough into small pieces. Then they all were off to wash their hands -- for at least the fourth time that morning -- and take their seats in the dining room for a short primer on table setting and table manners.
By the start of Sunday's session, all reticence had disappeared. It became one big family affair as Lanfranconi's daughters joined the class. First the group visited the Dupont Circle farmers market to choose tomatoes, garlic, mushrooms and sausage for the pizzas that would be the centerpiece of their lunch. Then it was back to the restaurant to start work.
First, more hand washing; then Lanfranconi showed how to shape portions of pizza dough into balls, cover them and set them aside in a warm place to rise. Next, more knife work, as the children cut up cherry and small heirloom variety tomatoes to be used as pizza toppings.
By the time Lanfranconi began showing his students how fresh mozzarella is made, he had to wade through a gaggle of children who had joined him behind the counter, including Caterina, whose eyes were just about counter-height as she clung to her father's leg.
"We are going to put on aprons," 6-year-old Cassidy Bright exclaimed to her grandmother, Betty Harrington, as Lanfranconi and Fabbri distributed full-size chef aprons to all the children. "Grammy, a double knot or just a bow?" Cassidy asked as the chefs helped the children hitch up the aprons so they wouldn't trip on them.
By 12:30 p.m. it was time for the big event: stretching the pizza dough.
Lanfranconi showed how to push and pull the dough -- gently, so it didn't break. "Don't use a rolling pin," he said. "If you do, it won't come out all bubbly and crusty." Then he tossed his dough into the air as the children marveled.
"You cannot say, 'I can't do it,' " Lanfranconi said. "You don't want to overstretch it, but if you do, just put it back and let it rise again."
For the next few minutes, everyone was intent on their pizza dough, creating an edge to keep the toppings in place, then adding their own toppings. "Today, the children are in charge of the pizzas!" Lanfranconi declared, after one parent tried to make her daughter add a topping the girl didn't want.
When the girl called the topping "yucky," and her father started a riff on "yucky foods," Lanfranconi turned serious.
"There are no yucky foods. You have to respect the food. You may say, 'It's not my favorite.' But there are no yucky foods."
If you know of a food-related event or restaurant that you think deserves attention, please contact Nancy Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.