If you think you have a problem packing your kids’ lunchbox, try standing in Larry Nicola’s shoes. Nicola, chef at Nic’s Restaurant and Martini Lounge in Beverly Hills, has a daughter who’s as discriminating as a demanding customer.
“I could never eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I can’t just have a plain turkey sandwich,” said 13 year-old Makaela. She prefers having Dad pack a pear, blue cheese and tangerine salad on baby lettuce or put together a chicken mole sandwich.
Having your lunchbox prepared by chef-dad has its rewards in the schoolyard. “People are always asking me if they can try my lunch,” she said.
Chefs understand better than anyone that crunchy, crispy, salty, flavorful stuff goes over big with kids -- just as it does with grown-up customers. And, as in their restaurants, presentation is everything.
Chefs even know the secret to getting their kids to eat fresh fruits and vegetables: dips, spreads and dressings. If you listen to enough chefs talk about kids’ lunches, you’ll begin to believe that these have more amazing transformative powers than the Incredible Hulk. Yogurt, hummus and tangy, spicy dips are the chef parent’s heroes.
But don’t think these chefs are pouring any old bottled dressing into their kids’ salads: They know that only a dressing with zing will do the trick. Melisse chef Josiah Citrin noticed that his son, Augustin, 6, shared his taste for tart and sour flavors. So Citrin started making a vinaigrette using a flavorful Banyuls vinegar for Augustin’s vegetables or salads.
Border Grill chef Mary Sue Milliken whips up a tangy lime-pepper mayonnaise. “My kids will down platters of ice-cold celery sticks, bell peppers, cucumber spears, carrots, jicama, steamed green beans or broccoli -- just about anything -- if they’re given a small bowl of lime-pepper mayonnaise,” she said. “I put it in their lunches to be sure the veggies don’t end up in the trash.”
Hans Rockenwagner ventures toward the exotic with a spicy romesco dip made from toasted almonds, roasted red peppers and ancho chiles that his 11-year-old son, Hansi, fearlessly slathers on his sandwiches or packs as a vegetable dip.
Gustavo Flores, chef at the Grill on the Alley, whips two tablespoons each of peanut butter and butter with three tablespoons of maple syrup for a lightly sweet dip for fresh, crisp apples, a perennial lunchbox favorite.
Vegetables sometimes sneak into a meal on a soup spoon. La Cachette’s Jean Francois Meteigner makes his kids one of his restaurant’s top standbys, a pureed butternut squash or zucchini soup that they can tote to school in an insulated container. It’s also cream-free, so his 3-year-old, dairy-averse daughter, Chloe, can eat it too.
Leftovers in tote
Many chefs choose the strategy of sending their kids to school with fabulous leftovers. “I pack a lunch that I would eat,” Milliken said. One of her boys’ favorites is grilled chicken drummettes. She makes double and triple quantities the night before for dinner with the intention of packing the extras in lunchboxes. The drummettes need only a splash of lime juice to enliven the flavor, but when we tested the recipe, we found that it was also terrific with Milliken’s lime-pepper mayonnaise.
What lunchbox would be complete without a cookie? Joachim and Christine Splichal of the Patina Group send their 7-year-old twins to school with orange sable cookies. OK, so there’s not that much vitamin C in them, but they are fun to make. The kids can help, and you can freeze some of the dough, keeping it on hand for fresh-baked treats.
But what’s most important in the lunchbox-packing game? Presentation, presentation, presentation.
Citrin trims turkey sandwiches into crust-less diamonds for his daughter Olivia, 3; he uses the restaurant’s slicer to get salami paper-thin, and therefore, acceptable. Jar chef Suzanne Tracht’s kids loved mini fruit or gelatin molds made in shot glass-sized containers Tracht’s husband picked up at Smart ‘n’ Final.
That’s almost as unusual as one of Milliken’s favorite finds. She shops in ethnic markets for clever containers to tuck into lunchboxes. One of her favorites: tiny, fish-shaped squeeze bottles that she buys at Japanese grocers. They may not be the latest movie-marketing tie-in toy, but they have their own kind of cool factor. That’s something fast-food marketers figured out long ago. Food is better if it’s fun.