You’ve got to be kidding

The use of napkins may take some explaining to anyone under 30

Why is it that chefs who claim they go to great lengths to serve fresh, seasonal produce suddenly grab the handiest bag of frozen deep-fryer-ready dross when they turn their lack-of-attention to feeding kids?

What cook worth their locally harvested sea salt would dare serve chicken nuggets to adults – unless they run a drive-through?

Allow me to present the under 12s menu you’ll find with depressingly regularity in too many restaurants: fish and chips, spaghetti bolognaise, ham and pineapple pizza, chicken nuggets and chips, ham and cheese sandwiches. It’s mostly junk food. My personal favourite is $6 chips with tomato sauce Unless your child’s been out drinking with Andrew Symonds since leaving after-school care, how can anyone consider chips a meal?

Occasionally, you may spot salad or vegetables, but otherwise, the only option parents have to keep the peace is sanctioning a high-fat meal of dubious nutritional value that unravels all those school and home lectures on healthy eating.

What really rankles is that it doesn’t come cheaply either. Churning out rubbish is a nice little earner, although restaurants appealing to cost-conscious families offer meal deals including a soft drink and ice-cream to ensure a large dose of sugar as part of this balanced diet.

Chef, the tuck shop lady does a better job than you.

Am I sounding cranky enough yet?

My children, aged four and six, have grown up dining out. OK, so daddy is a restaurant critic and I take them to work, if only to see them and not feel guilty about the family meals I miss at home. However, looking around restaurants, it’s obvious that I’m part of a generation that eats out with family on more than just Mother’s Day and birthdays.

What angers me is chefs don’t treat their grown up customers like this (unless it really is a drive-through). They craft menus for balance and variety. In recent years, customer demands produced a shift to lighter, healthier cooking styles. While it remains true that you don’t go out to restaurants to diet – I’ll have the pork belly and duck fat-roasted potatoes please – at least the options are there. Unless you’re still in short pants.

It rankles because as a critic, I’m an advocate for diners. Restaurants are treating their future customers with disrespect. If you raise kids to believe restaurants are a deep-fried binge, then they might as well save time and head straight for the drive-through once they have the keys to the car.

Thankfully, some places go the extra mile to cook child-sized portions from the adult menu. If it’s a contemporary restaurant, you’ll probably discover empathy from a chef with kids too. That said, there are plenty of adult customers who’ll wolf down a meal one night, then turn their nose up at it the following evening, so the kitchen should be well-prepared to cater for fickle children.

So where’s best to eat?

The Chinese welcome family and yum cha is like a good Pixar animation – kids love the colour and movement while adults are in on the jokes. My son was one when he first tried it. Wooden chopsticks come in handy for teething troubles too. On one visit, the yum cha trolley lady stopped and began rummaging through our pram. She’d decided our child was too cold and was hunting for warmer clothes. He scored a free steamed bun too. Now that’s service.

Restaurants are all about adventure. It’s a chance to introduce children to new ingredients and food styles. At home, we’ve learnt the art of hiding under-appreciated ingredients in oyster sauce or sweet soy. Noodle stir-fries a popular and regular hit.

Italians are instinctively warm towards bambini too. If you want to travel overseas with kids, Italy’s a great place to start, especially when dining out. Often, a small bowl of pasta arrived with no charge. I’d leave a generous tip to pay for soaking the tomato-stained tablecloth and cleaning up a table that looked resembled a Quentin Tarantino set.

During my time as co-editor of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide I began to survey restaurants about their child-friendliness. There’s no doubt it’s improving, right down to high chairs and colouring-in sets, although chances are little hands are busy downloading games on the iPhone.

As an aside, I’m against letting kids tuning out on computers, since the dining table is a social gathering for conversation. Nonetheless, I confess that as a last-minute solution to preventing a major meltdown when attention spans are exhausted, all praise to the PS3 (as long as it’s on mute).

What impresses me most is a chef who says they’ll adapt the menu to suit children, from portion sizes to leaving off the chilli.

I have fond memories of my daughter devouring an entire entree of raw scallops bathed in soy butter, aged two. Nowadays, she doesn’t even like fish and chips, although she’ll scoff salt-and-pepper calamari simply because her brother loves it. From that dish, my son likes rocket on his sandwiches.

Her most recent meal, at The Provenance, a two-hat restaurant in the regional Victorian town of Beechworth, was onglet steak with vegetables. My junior carnivore tucked in with gusto. The reason? It’s the same for her parents: a dish packed with flavour.

Later on, my wife missed out on the strawberry and raspberry dessert. I pinched a mouthful. I’m always delighted when dishes ordered for adults are tried by children and disappear before you can fight for the scraps.

The point is offering choice. A good chef should do that. Great food brings out the child in all of us.

All we are saying is give peas a chance.

 

*  The original version of this essay first appeared in Cuisine magazine, March 2011.


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