It’s 8 p.m. on a recent Wednesday in the busy kitchen at Fiola restaurant downtown. A 101 / 2-year-old boy with blue eyes, large hands and a dimple in his chin skillfully swirls dollops of porcini crema onto shiny porcelain plates. On top of the cream, he nestles chickpea fritters that he has fried in hot oil. Using tweezers, the boy dresses the fritters with slivers of fresh anchovy and garnishes them with bits of fried pickled ramp. He wipes the edges of the plates clean with a napkin and shouts “Runner!” in a voice loud enough to cut through the clatter and bang of the kitchen.
In most regards, Luca Trabocchi, a rising fifth-grader at the District’s Ross Elementary School, is an ordinary kid. An enthusiastic athlete, he plays tennis and looks forward to playing football next year. A history buff and all-around good student, he proudly reports that his team won second place at his school’s annual science fair. He talks with excitement about an upcoming field trip, when he and his classmates will go ziplining.
What separates Luca from his peers is his dedication to the art and craft of cooking. And his work ethic. At Fiola, just before serving up the chickpea amuse-bouche, Luca spent an hour painstakingly flipping over macaron halves stuck to their silicone baking sheet. Taking care not to break them, he squeezed pastry cream onto each, then joined two together to make enough to fill several large trays. When Fiola pastry chef Kendra Grieco tells him he’s “looking good,” he answers cheerfully, “I am slow compared to you.” Asked by a visitor to choose between playing soccer and doing grunt work in a restaurant kitchen, Luca picks the kitchen.
“It’s so fun being a part of the team,” he says. “Before I even get here, I start to feel excited.”
For the past three years, at his own insistence, Luca has “worked” (apprenticed might be a more accurate term) on weekends, holidays and during the summer in the kitchens of Fiola and Casa Luca, the latter named for him. Luca’s passion for kitchen duty began innocuously enough: His parents, chef Fabio and co-owner Maria Trabocchi, were working long hours at Fiola, their new restaurant, and Luca, who’d been following his father around the kitchen at home almost since birth, preferred being with his parents to staying at home with the nanny. At first the boy would arrive at Fiola in jeans and sneakers and do simple prep work with his dad. When the kitchen got busy, he would retreat to the office to make paper airplanes, a practice he continues today on busy Saturday nights when the pace goes from fast to frantic. “He’s very intuitive about knowing when he can be helpful and when he should step back,” says executive pastry chef Tom Wellings.
“Luca got along with everyone in the kitchen,” Maria says. Told to get ice, to sweep up a spill, to fold napkins, he did so quickly and well. He fetched goods from the large walk-in, though he found the whole hogs hanging from hooks in there “scary.” If there was nothing else to do, he would polish the dishes. All the time he was watching what went on around him, learning and connecting with adults other than his father. He forged a special bond with Wellings. “I admit I was skeptical at first,” Wellings recalls. “It was an adjustment for us cooks to have a child in the kitchen. But anyone could see the kid was a natural. Now when he’s not around, we miss him. He reminds us of the joy of it all.”
Luca’s parents allowed him to work in the kitchen with certain stipulations. If his presence proved to be a distraction, he would be out, but that never happened. And he was responsible for his own safety. “If you get burned, its your own fault,” Maria told him. She admits she had some concerns for his safety at first, but she understood restaurant culture and recognized qualities in her son — talent and drive that reminded her of her husband — that she did not want to inhibit. And except for a small incident when hot water splashed on his shoe, Luca’s kitchen tenure has been accident-free.
The Trabocchis also insisted that Luca be responsible. “If you start a shift, you end the shift,” his mother told him. When he needed to rest, the office was there as a refuge.
Luca knew that he had made the cut when his thrifty parents bought him a white chef’s jacket with his name embroidered on it and a pair of black clogs, the shoe of choice for safety-conscious line chefs.
Wellings became Luca’s teacher and mentor. The pastry station, set off from the hot stoves and grills, provided the boy with a moderately protected spot to learn. And the somewhat slower pace of dessertmaking — much of the work is done early in the day — facilitated mentoring. Wellings taught Luca to make cannoli shells, then to make the batter for and fry Fiola’s signature bomboloni, small, light doughnuts from Sardinia that are rolled in sugar. “He’s a fast learner,” Wellings says, “meticulous and precise like his father.” With practice, when Luca lifted his bomboloni out of the 350-degree oil, they were cooked perfectly inside and out. “His bomboloni are better than anyone else’s,” Wellings says.
Luca learned to make panna cotta and garnish it with crushed honeycomb candy. He learned to plate gelato and other frozen desserts. He mastered the trick of resting a full ice cream scoop in the palm of his hand so the ice cream would warm just enough to slip easily onto a plate.
He learned to assemble tarts. In the late spring he topped small rounds of pastry with strawberry-tomato jam that he dressed with thyme-infused strawberry sorbet and garnished with thyme flowers. He learned to twirl the dough for ensaimada, a brioche-type pastry made with lard that’s a specialty of Mallorca, the island off Spain where Maria’s family has deep roots. Perfecting the ensaimada was a challenge. “Through scores of taste tests, Luca did not get bored or frustrated,” Wellings says.
Luca isn’t perfect, of course. After one busy shift at Fiola, he took the book containing the restaurant’s proprietary dessert recipes home with him. Maria discovered him the next morning fast asleep at the kitchen table, surrounded by pages that he had cut out in preparation for pasting them into his own notebook.
More seriously, during his first shift at Casa Luca in 2013, the excitement of working at a restaurant that bore his name seemed to have gone to Luca’s head. He approached three kitchen workers and told them they were fired, a message the employees interpreted as coming from “the boss.” Maria apologized profusely to the workers, assuring them that they were valued and trusted employees. And she followed up with a stern lecture to Luca on “respecting the labor of every person in the restaurant.” Luca’s punishment: two hours washing dishes, a job he ended up loving.
In an era of hyper-vigilant parenting, some adults express surprise that Luca’s parents allow him to work in their restaurants’ kitchens. True, his efforts are supervised by Wellings or Grieco, but after three years of training during dinner service, Luca operates independently, pulling orders off the printer located on an upper shelf and filling them as he sees fit. Moreover, no one accompanies Luca to the fryer, located next to the gas-powered grill, whose intense, jumping flames roar as they burn.
Having Luca in the kitchen, in case you’re wondering, is perfectly legal. Federal and local law allows children under age 14 to work in businesses owned entirely by their parents. Were Luca drawing a salary or required to work a specific number of hours, there might be a problem, but that is not the case. “Of course, we expect parents to exercise common sense,” says Mohammad Sheikh, the District’s deputy director of labor standards.
The Trabocchis carefully considered their decision to allow Luca to follow his passion into the kitchen. They decided based on their knowledge of their son and on their values: Fabio grew up in poverty in Italy, and Maria grew up in Spain in the lean years following the downfall of the Spanish dictatorship. Both say that a good and meaningful life requires hard work and sacrifice. They think Luca is no more likely to be injured in the kitchen than he is playing soccer or riding his bike. And they say some small amount of risk is acceptable in exchange for the benefits of his learning to dedicate himself to what he loves.
Moreover, they celebrate the continuation of the generations as few native-born Americans do. Their restaurants pay tribute to Fabio’s father, Giuseppe, a sharecropping truck farmer who taught his son to cook and to appreciate the finest, freshest ingredients; to Fabio, who celebrates his father’s Old World values; and to Luca, whom they see as embodying Giuseppe and Fabio’s values.
“We are European kids living in America,” Aliche Trabocchi, Luca’s older sister, said at a recent party celebrating Fiola’s third year in business. Aliche, 13, is unusually engaging, like her brother. Unlike him, she prefers the front of the house to the kitchen. On holidays and special occasions, she joins her mother in the dining room, taking coats, seating patrons, making them feel welcome.
And what does it mean to be “European kids”?
“We are influenced by European culture,” Aliche declares. “We know how to act. We know how to eat. When I tell classmates that I eat squid ink pasta, they are amazed.” Luca’s classmates are similarly surprised by the contents of his lunch bag, which might contain pappardelle, grilled octopus and slices of prosciutto.
The importance of work is not lost on Aliche. “My Dad was working at the age of 14,” she says. “Now he owns three restaurants.”
Luca, too, has thoughts about the meaning of work. He tells a reporter that his parents are motivated by what he calls “all the right things”: their devotion to family, their commitment to the highest standards of hospitality and their desire to build a business they can pass on to the next generation.
Those heady thoughts are not what makes Luca return to the kitchen. Along with his love of cooking, what motivates him is the excitement. “In the shower at home before I come to the restaurant, I start to feel it,” he says. “Maybe tonight we will do 200, 300 covers. I want to do that. I want to be part of that.”
His favorite time is when the restaurant is busy, because that’s when “they treat me like an adult.” But he also loves riding home with his father after their shift, talking about things they love: food, cars and running restaurants.
In the immediate future, Luca says, he’s sad that the growing demands of school, sports and social life will limit his hours in the kitchen. Longer-term? “Well, I am thinking restaurants,” he says. “I might follow Dad’s footsteps. Maybe take over the family business. Maybe open three more restaurants.” But then, he has another thought: “There might be jobs that I haven’t yet explored.”
Given his age, that’s quite an understatement.
Weissman is a freelance writer living in Chevy Chase and the author of “God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Cup of Coffee” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008).