First, we saw a picture of a kid staging at EL Ideas. Not a young chef, or a twentysomething who looks like they’re still 15— those are everywhere. This was an actual kid, a pint-sized lad of 13 in chef’s whites, who was not only working that day at EL Ideas but, the word went out, was regularly staging a couple of days a month at Moto and iNG. (Ironically, we had recently taken our own 13-year-old to iNG; funny to think he might have had a counterpart in the kitchen that night.) So we decided to we had to find out the story. But when we contacted Homaro Cantu about a kid in his kitchen, his response was: Which one?
We’ve long known that education and opening opportunities for young people is a huge priority for Cantu, whose own background was notably opportunity-free until he gained a mentor in a kitchen job, and he often has Chicago Public School students in his kitchen, giving them exposure to the world of fine dining (and in his case, weird science). So saying "the kid in the kitchen" didn’t entirely narrow it down, but there is one kid who stands out as a regular in Moto’s and Ing’s kitchens. His name is Jack Flaharty, and he turns up a couple of times a month to work alongside Cantu, Richie Farina and the other chefs in Cantu’s kitchens to expand his horizons and see the "pretty amazing" things they do. And talking to him, he proves to be an unusually well-spoken and self-possessed young man who is clearly fascinated and thoughtful about the way fine dining food is made.
Foss, who actually had Flaharty in his kitchen while the Ideas in Food blogger-chefs were there, sounds a note of grizzled-old-veteran realism: "I’m not prepared to call anybody a prodigy. Part of becoming a chef is the hard knocks stuff, learning all the mundane skills of the trade. At some point in his teens, he needs some time in a real kitchen. But he’s smart and inquisitive, and hopefully he’ll keep the mentality of a student— I consider myself a student— and that’s what will get him far." We spoke with Jack by phone recently… during a break between 7th grade and his shift at Moto.
So how’d you get into the kitchens at Moto and iNG?
My dad set up a guest chef for a day thing for me. I met Chef Cantu at staff meeting, and he said I could come over to iNG. I stayed until the end of service, and he said I could come back once or twice a month. It’s been going great ever since.
What do you do there?
I help out with things chefs need me to do. Prepping, helping the chefs to plate. Sometimes I just observe. They do a lot of cool stuff there, it’s cool to hang out and watch.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to do?
I wouldn’t say there’s a lot that was particularly hard. The very first time I was guestcheffing, Chef Farina wanted me to shell half a bucket of chickpeas. As long as I didn’t get too distracted, I got right through it.
So how did you get so interested in fine dining in the first place?
My dad is a total gourmet foodie. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve heard him talking about things restaurants were doing. I looked some of it up online and I saw that there were places that were doing really cool stuff. I read some cookbooks and started trying to cook from them.
Well, the Alinea cookbook was one. I’m really interested in this whole modern cuisine genre. I have the Eleven Madison Park cookbook, the dishes they plate are really beautiful.
How was staging at EL different from Moto or iNG?
Well, EL is a tiny bit more involved because they only have three chefs. I’d say it’s about the same things, though— they cook amazing things and bring it right to the customer.
So what are your plans for the future?
I hope I can stay around the dining scene and learn. I’ve learned a lot from Chef Cantu already. I want to try my own popup restaurant out of my house, but I know I’m not ready for that. That’s a few years away.
Do you try making these things at home?
I’ve tried some of the stuff that Moto and iNG make at my house. It’s interesting to try and see what I can accomplish on my own. I experimented with some different chemicals that I ordered online, and saw how they work, then saw how a pro kitchen puts them to use.
Recently I made pea ice cream— I used peas and dehydrated carrot puree, buttermilk gel, and some bacon powder. I wouldn’t say that was to any extent as cool as what the guys at Moto and iNG are doing, but I thought it was interesting.
So what are your favorite restaurants, besides the ones you’ve worked in? Do you have a favorite, like, pizza place?
I went to Schwa, and I’ve been to Goosefoot. Both of which are amazing. For pizza I really like Coalfire, it’s amazing, as well as Spacca Napoli. I love how they cook in a wood oven. It really enhances the flavor.