If you’ve been watching MasterChef Junior with your kids these past few weeks, I’ll bet two thoughts have crossed your mind. The first: Wow, my kid is probably a lot more capable than I give her credit for. The second: Who is that adorable nine-year-old preparing Beef Wellington and molten lava cakes, and who seems to have little to no fear of anything, including Gordon Ramsay?
Her name is Sarah Lane, and I’m happy to report that today’s post on DALS is a conversation between Sarah’s mom, Stephanie, and Times columnist, Ron Lieber. Ron is father of a 7-year-old daughter, and working on a book called The Opposite of Spoiled, about parenting, money and values. Like most of us, he was captivated by Sarah’s savvy with a chef’s knife, but his curiosity went deeper. As Ron reports his book, he couldn’t help but wonder What’s her story? What kind of parents turned a kid that young loose with live fire and sharp knives? And perhaps more to the point, Should we be doing the same? He goes straight to the source for the answers…
Ron: Can you fill us in on some of the back story? Where did Sarah grow up?
Stephanie: We moved to Los Angeles three-and-a-half years ago but we’re from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It’s always been just the two of us. I’ve been a single parent since Sarah was born and I put her to work as early as I could. She would help with dishes, pulling out knives and spoons.
And where did she learn to really cook?
I grew up and lived in Lancaster until Sarah was in kindergarten. Lancaster was a place where lots of kids worked with their families. My mom owns a restaurant, so I waitressed there, and Sarah came to work with me every day, starting from when she was 2 weeks old. She always wanted to be part of the action. She was in Lancaster just this past summer to visit her grandparents by herself and spent a good bit of time helping at the restaurant and waiting on tables. She really knows what a restaurant looks like from the inside.
Most of us worry about letting our kids use knives. How old was Sarah the first time she used one?
She was probably four or five. We started with a peeler, then moved up. I’m still a bit scared of the knife thing and will often turn my head. But I think there are people who live happy and full lives with nine fingers or less, so I’m not that concerned.
I know you’re joking, but I’m sure you have some rules…
We do have rules about these things. She’s not allowed to use the stove unless I’m there with her. Ditto for the microwave, even. But again, it was probably first grade or so when she really started cooking — sauteeing vegetables and baking cupcakes.
So what’s the closest she’s come to really injuring herself?
We really amped up the practice leading up to MasterChef. She’s a lefty, and her natural inclination is to use her left hand and reach across the pan. Well at one point, she reached across and burned her arm pretty good. I tried to warn her, but just like lots of kids, she heard me but didn’t really listen. When I saw her doing it again, I just sort of let it happen — they have a saying in the kitchen “You burn, you learn.”
And knock on wood, there have been no cutting incidents. I’m proud to say that she still has all ten of her fingers.
Does she work in Grandma’s restaurant kitchen for pay?
She works for tips when we go home. Over Christmas vacation, she made $36. She also gets paid in all the free food she wants. Her favorites at the restaurant are the mozzarella sticks, the soft pretzels and the chicken wings. But she also loves sushi and fennel and brussels sprouts. She’s really all over the map.
So she cooks you dinner for free?
Ha! She does weekend breakfast, so I can sleep in, which is very nice of her. I taught her to make coffee when she was four years old. She doesn’t do it every day — I have to drag her out of bed on school days sometimes. But no, I love to cook dinner. It would be hard for me to give that up. Sarah definitely contributes, but I’d hate to have her cook all my meals, because then what would I do?
There’s something primal about providing dinner, as a parent, isn’t there?
As a mom especially, I really love is cooking and baking for her, making sure that she has the best lunches in fourth grade. She’ll tell me what she wants, but most of the time I put it together. This week, she had pork barbecue sliders with pickles and applesauce and Doritos. (Don’t judge!). Sometimes, she wants sushi or soup, and she has pasta salad a lot.
Are there other things she does that would seem a bit beyond her years to others?
In some ways, I feel like she’s been like a little grown-up for as long as I can remember. Her dad lives in Houston, and she’s been flying by herself back and forth since first grade. She’s a woman of the world — she likes to get out there and do stuff. At this point, I just drive her around, but once she gets a drivers license, I may never see her again.
What are you still afraid to let her try, irrationally maybe?
We live in a 2-bedroom apartment in L.A. We have a courtyard, it’s open, and she has forever wanted to ride her scooter down there by herself. And I’m way too neurotic to let her do that. She’s so eager to walk to school by herself, ride around the neighborhood, things like that. And I’m a little overprotective. She’s a little girl in a big world.
So better that she play around with sharp knives and live fire?!
I’d rather have her in a professional kitchen, cutting off her fingers, than riding a scooter around the courtyard. Call me crazy.
Has she gotten any related offers since she was ejected from the MasterChef kitchen?
Not yet, but she’d really like to do more things geared towards kids. I have a dear friend back home whose son has terrible food allergies. They’ve watched the show, and it’s inspired him to want to learn how to cook. It’s been so cool for her to hear that she’s inspired others.
Thanks Ron & Stephanie! Sarah left the show two weeks ago, but you can see her fellow cast members Dara and Alexander battle it out tonight, Friday November 8 for the season finale. (FOX, 8:00 ET.)
Stephanie, 37, and Sarah, 9, at a MasterChef Junior promotional event earlier this year.