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Appetite for Perfection

The teen chefs of the Oakwood School have honed their palates while mastering the cutting board, the grill, and the range. But can they pull off the most important meal of their lives?

Robyn Sewitz is almost done flipping through the latest Bon Appétit this Sunday afternoon when she makes a discovery she just has to share with her son. Brushing back a lock of her auburn hair, she calls to him across her spacious kitchen. “Jon,” she says, “here’s boar hunting for beginners!”  

“Oh yeah?” he says, halting his knife’s progress. Several weeks shy of his 16th birthday, Jon is tall and lean, his full cheeks not yet ready for their first serious shave, but after all those months he’s spent studying cookbooks, mastering culinary modernism, and apprenticing in professional kitchens, he’s a more capable cook than either of his parents will ever be. Jon’s a sophomore at the Oakwood School, a private progressive academy in North Hollywood. His mother is a psychotherapist, while his father, David, designs furniture and window treatments for clients of enormous net worth.

Like many Oakwood parents, the Sewitzes regard their child’s artistic ambitions not as some passing teenage fancy but as a creative flowering that could lead to great things. When Jon thought he wanted to be a musician, they signed him up for lessons and invested in a Bellafina double bass. He plays in the school orchestra and jazz band, but much of the time now his instrument sits on its side in the deserted music parlor of their Encino home, like a dejected mastiff.

Jon’s food epiphany came during a family trip to Spain a couple of years ago. Robyn wasn’t trying to make a chef out of him when she booked dinner reservations at El Celler de Can Roca, which earned three stars in the 2011 Michelin Guide. She wanted to expose him to something that would pique his interest more than the art museums were. Jon’s palate still carries the sensations of that meal: oysters served in the bottom half of a wine bottle with carbonated cava sauce; eggplant soufflé wrapped in white sardines; a lineup of mussels, one bathed in bergamot foam, another in nectarine jelly and caramelized rose petal, and another in “distilled earth jelly,” a clear sauce derived from a dab of mud that was boiled for hours at low temperatures in an evaporator. “It tasted like dirt you’d try when you were a kid,” he says, “when it didn’t taste bad.” Dessert was even more spectacular. “It had apple in it, cinnamon, and vanilla crème,” he says. “They brought out a DKNY perfume bottle and had us taste the dessert as we smelled the perfume, and the dessert tasted exactly like the perfume’s aroma.” In nine courses Jon was transformed. “I would always go back to that experience in my mind,” he says, “how food could be so amazing you could remember it forever.”

As Jon continues with his knife at the marble-topped kitchen island, he’s joined by 17-year-old Sam Yehros and 18-year-old Macklin Casnoff, both seniors at Oakwood. They dice and pulverize, clarify and puree, strain and scour. For almost two years the friends have been collaborating on original multicourse dinners, charging only for ingredients, that they prepare for special occasions—a brother pushing off to college or a mom celebrating a birthday along with a tableful of relatives and friends.

If there were any single event that brought these three together as a cooking collective, it would be the Oakwood winter immersion program of 2009. While other students headed out with teachers to roam China or photograph Death Valley, Macklin found himself with 15 classmates in a cabin in Utah contemplating Euclid’s Golden Ratio. They cross-country skied and discussed whether the ancient Greek concept of beauty and proportion could apply to their world. Macklin’s world had been sharks, then skateboards, but lately he had rekindled an old passion for food. Back home, when he wasn’t watching Iron Chef, Macklin and his friend Henry Kwapis would explore how to apply the Golden Ratio to fine cuisine. They tried cold-calling some of the best chefs in L.A. to see if they could come in and ask them about their craft. José Andrés, meeting them at his Beverly Hills restaurant the Bazaar, was so impressed by the philosophical sweep of their questions that he answered in a 45-minute stream of consciousness, punctuating his thoughts with a liquid olive and molecular caprese in a pipette. “Look at the light above your head,” he commanded, loud and jolly. “Now try to eat it. This is how I look at food.”

When Jon heard about what Macklin and Henry had been doing, he asked to tag along for their talks with Michael Cimarusti at Providence and David Myers at his now-defunct dining room, Sona. Before long Jon was an unpaid apprentice in Sona’s kitchen, and Macklin was learning by Cimarusti’s side. As the two boys began cooking meals for friends and family, Macklin started experimenting in the kitchen with Sam, his Hancock Park neighbor, who had his own apprenticeship with Neal Fraser of Grace. Within a few months the two operations merged.

“See, look how cool,” says Jon’s mother, holding up the magazine article, which has shots of the hunter and roasted pork, but no dead pigs. “This is a vacation you should take. You can get in touch with your inner Michael Pollan.”

“What?” says Jon, distracted.

“You haven’t read The Omnivore’s Dilemma?” asks Sam, referring to Pollan’s book, a James Beard award winner that ends with the author trying his luck at hunting and gathering.

“I did,” Jon says.

“You didn’t read all of it,” Macklin says with a smile.

“Yeah, I did.”

“You admitted to me you hadn’t read all of it.”

“Well,” Jon says, “I read a lot of it.”

“Jon is dying to kill an animal, which I don’t approve of,” Robyn tells me. “I don’t like the idea of holding a gun and killing anything, to be honest. It goes against my whole belief system, but it’s better than suffering on one of those terrible farms.”

Often Sam, Macklin, and Jon seem more like they’re members of a teen rock group than three exceedingly capable cooks. One moment they’ll be chomping blueberry Airheads or playing basketball on the Xbox or downloading Toto’s “Africa” from iTunes just to goof on it. The next they’ll be transfixed by a YouTube video of Chicago chef Grant Achatz demonstrating his solid-sauce technique or discussing the radical foraging philosophy of René Redzepi, the chef at Noma restaurant in Copenhagen. Like a band, the boys have given themselves a name: Samacon (Sam, Macklin, and Jon squished together). For their gigs they even bring in backup players—Henry, who’s 17, and another Oakwood friend, Brendan Garrett, who’s 16, to help out as sous-chefs.

Unlike teen rockers, though, the Samacon chefs have taken up an art form thoroughly rooted in the adult world and have mastered it with an idealism and fellowship that usually disappears with age. They aren’t cocky about their work or egomaniacal—they are constantly challenging each other but never competing for supremacy. I could tell they knew they were good, but they had no way to measure how good. The friends and relatives at their dinners were cheering for them regardless of what came out on the plate, and the chefs they’ve worked for hadn’t tried the boys’ creations.

So one afternoon over burgers I asked them if they’d like to put together one of their nine-course meals for the chefs they admire most. “It would be nerve-racking,” Jon told me, “probably the most nerve-racking thing we’ve ever done. But it would be amazing if we could cook for great chefs.”

After wresting a blank check from my editor to pay for ingredients, I asked the boys for their ultimate guest list and began making calls. Five agreed to attend: Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery and Osteria Mozza; Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook of Animal and the recently launched Son of a Gun; Fraser, of Grace; and Ludo Lefebvre, creator of LudoBites pop-up restaurants, an occasional judge on Top Chef, and starting next month, the star of his own reality show on the Sundance Channel. Now all the boys needed to do was pull off the best meal of their young lives.

A La Carte

A week and a day before their big dinner, the Samacon chefs gather at Jon’s kitchen table to hammer out their menu. They agree on the squid kimchi amuse-bouche; the scallop with radish and black sesame; the hay-roasted, kale-wrapped pork medallions; and a whiskey-tangerine-nutmeg palate cleanser. Consulting the list in Macklin’s disintegrating Moleskine notebook, they even agree on the raw oyster with bittersweet chocolate—admittedly a risk. They only have to settle on one more entrée. To Macklin, what their meal lacks is a strong narrative, and he has a solution: “Chefs, I think, are less concerned about being served the type of food they might be doing in their own restaurants,” he says. “I feel like a chef’s favorite thing to eat is, like, a roasted chicken or a fatty piece of pork.”

“That would be so good,” says Sam, his brown eyes almost moistening behind his horn-rimmed glasses. It’s as if he’s just turned 70, not 17, and has bitten into Proust’s madeleine. “My mom makes roast chicken, and then you add quartered sweet potatoes and then potatoes and carrots, and the fat from the chicken soaks them as you’re roasting.”

“We roast a chicken and bring it to the table,” Macklin says, “and they pull it apart. It’s not like we’re serving people who want everything to be done for them. Chefs love to get involved.”

Jon is aghast. “We’d have to carve it for them,” he says with the crumpled brow of somebody whose universe is near collapse.

“No, we don’t,” Macklin says. “I see one of the chefs cutting it. It can be a communal thing, and we can even be out there talking because that’s sort of where there’s a little bit of a break in the meal.”

“Yeah,” says Jon, “but they’re not coming to this dinner for that. They’re expecting teen chefs who’ve worked at some of the best restaurants. I know it’s cool, but there’s no restaurant that has beautiful, sophisticated plating, and suddenly it goes family style and back to beautiful plating. The menu is all about a story, and it has to flow. If it doesn’t flow, the diners are not happy, and they just leave confused.”

Like many Macklin concepts—the seemingly impossible wheat grass puree he executed for their last dinner, the rosemary soda company that hasn’t gotten off the ground—his homey chicken interlude could lead to counterintuitive triumph or the abyss. Jon brings to the enterprise his expertise in modernism and molecular gastronomy, and Sam, his more traditional approach. But Samacon wouldn’t be what it is without their combined talent for managing Macklin.

“I believe,” Macklin says, “that doing a dish that’s family style and the most simple, perfect thing in the world would show our reverence for what food is. What food means. The fact that it brings people together.”

Eventually Macklin loses his ally. “If we’re trying to make the whole meal communal,” Sam says, “then we have to change the entire menu.” Instead they opt for loup de mer, which will evoke the simplicity of country French cuisine, though Macklin has trouble letting go. “I don’t want to argue about roast chicken anymore,” he says. “Because I have very strong feelings about roast chicken. OK?”

 Locally Grown

his generation of L.A. teenagers has taken to food like no other before it. They’ve grown up in a messy, polyglot city where often only the shared experience of eating Vietnamese pho and Salvadoran pupusas and Ethiopian lamb cakes can seem capable of holding everything together. They’ve spent countless hours watching the culinary blood sport of Top Chef and Iron Chef and (for those whose parents can swing it) learned their way around the menus of high-end restaurants. They’ll opine authoritatively on Yelp about tripe soup just as quickly as they’ll wince when Grandpa asks the waiter what the hell a pappardelle is.

But Sam, Macklin, and Jon are a category unto themselves. Of the five guests at their chefs’ dinner, only Ludo Lefebvre hasn’t met at least one of them before. Shook and Dotolo got to know Jon, Macklin, and Henry the way many other L.A. chefs did: a series of phone calls and e-mails, unanswered in this case, followed by a teenage siege on their restaurant. “We kind of blew it off at first,” says Shook. “Then we saw a couple of bicycles parked outside. ‘Like, it’s so cool that somebody stopped in on a bike ride here,’ we thought, and the manager was like, ‘Oh, it’s those kids.’ ” Shook and Dotolo invited them into the kitchen to observe and help out. By closing time there was a steady rain. “And I was like, ‘Put the bikes in the back of the Jeep, and I’ll drive you home,’ ” Shook recalls.

Jon and Brendan, the Samacon sous-chef, met Nancy Silverton through Oakwood. They’re close friends with her son, who also attends the school. In fact, they’re all spending time together with Silverton at her house in Umbria this summer as soon as Jon and Brendan finish the two-week apprenticeship she’s arranged with Dario Cecchini, Italy’s most famous butcher. “Jonathan Gold is going to be in town working on a Saveur article they’re doing about Umbria,” she says of the food critic. “So it will be fun for those guys to eat with Jonathan.”

Macklin may meet them there, too. The Silverton influence reaches far back into his past, when he carpooled with her son to kindergarten. At the time Silverton and Mark Peel were married, running Campanile and La Brea Bakery together. Picking up Macklin in the morning, they were already well into their workday. “They would come from the fish market or the vegetable market,” he says. “I was always interested in their double life.” When Macklin was 13, he bumped into Peel at school. “I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve been thinking about it,’ ” he remembers, “ ‘and I’d love to come in and work.’ ”

“He spent one day peeling garbanzo beans,” says Macklin’s father, Philip Casnoff, an actor who had his breakthrough playing Patrick Swayze’s nemesis in the 1985 miniseries North and South. “I never saw him look so exhausted in his life. His second day he cut his finger badly, and after the third day he was gone.”

“I was too young to appreciate it,” Macklin tells me, “and I didn’t force myself to stay there long enough to really get it. I thought, ‘This isn’t for me—it’s too much.’ I really loved it, though.”

He’s had an easier time working on Sundays with Cimarusti at Providence. “Coming out of cooking school, three or four years into a career, people can be making great progress, but they may also have developed bad habits,” says Cimarusti, who will be in France the night of the chefs’ dinner. “They believe what they’ve learned so far is gospel. But Macklin came here to be programmed, and whether it’s the sous-chefs teaching him or myself, we’ve molded him to be exactly what we wanted. Also, he realizes quality—what are good ingredients, what are great ingredients, and what are bad ingredients—and that’s something that doesn’t come naturally to most people.”

Neal Fraser says much the same thing about Sam. “I’ve had people who’ve come in from culinary school who were very game, then they’d get their Gucci loafers dirty,” he says. “With Sam, he’d burn or cut himself, and all you would see was him in the corner taping himself up.” From that first conversation, when Sam cold-called Fraser, they hit it off. “I rode my bike down to Grace,” he says. “Neal had told me to ask for Jason, the sous-chef. I got there at about two o’clock and started chopping carrots.” He began as a prep cook, then graduated to garnishing salads before Fraser let him work the fish station and the grill.

Sam’s success in landing a job at Grace shocked his father. “When he said, ‘I’m going to call these restaurants and ask for an internship,’ and mentioned some highbrow ones in Los Angeles, I just rolled my eyes,” says Ilan Yehros, who waited tables and worked in the kitchens at several restaurants in Toronto. “There’s no way in hell that somebody would let a 15-year-old in with all the knives and equipment around. Kitchens are busy places. No one has the patience.”

Ilan still liked to cook after he became a banker. He would wake up at four in the morning and pad into the kitchen to check his beef stock for some bravura French meal weeks in the making. Back then Sam and his siblings would occasionally serve their parents breakfast in bed and cook simple dinners. Without cable TV, Sam didn’t have the Food Network for inspiration, so he turned to his father’s copy of Larousse Gastronomique, the classic-French culinary encyclopedia.

During the Yehroses’ vacation in Provence last summer, Sam and his dad took a seven-and-a-half-hour excursion to chef Edouard Loubet’s two-star Michelin restaurant at the hotel La Bastide de Capelongue. “I wanted Sam to be enlightened about food,” says Ilan, “to understand it as a chef clearly at the top of his profession understands it.” They got there early, and Loubet gave them a tour of the kitchen. Sam worked his way through 14 courses on a hilltop patio, awestruck. “The first course was a really light vinegary soup and escargots,” he tells me. “It was amazing, with this beautiful bouquet of tiny flowers on the edge of the bowl.” He loved the snails and the frogs’ legs but not the veal kidneys. “I could only eat one and a half of them,” he tells me. “It’s an acquired taste.”

 Garnishing

One more day until dinner is served. The Lakers are fighting hard against the Celtics and their own lethargy, which isn’t good for sautéing vegetables. “Henry,” Jon yells. “You haven’t been watching your oil, and now it’s burnt.” Henry springs from his seat in the den and sprints to the Thermidor range in his skinny jeans and distressed leather shoes. The damage turns out to be minimal. They all watch part of the game during lunchtime, when Brendan, gentle faced and built like a linebacker, refuels everybody with helpings of his home-cooked stew.

Earlier this morning the chefs went shopping at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market. They knew right where to find the vendors with the plumpest Kumamoto oysters, the most recently harvested pea tendrils, and were gone within an hour. From there they visited McCall’s Meat and Fish Shop in Silver Lake, whose owner had cooked in several highly regarded restaurants before becoming a butcher.

“I swear,” Macklin told me earlier, “McCall’s is like the best butcher shop in the world, probably.” At which point Sam offered a little perspective. “They are not the best butcher shop in the world. There are so many instances where Macklin says, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever had.’ ”

“I was just excited,” Macklin explained.

“You just haven’t had a lot of life experience,” Sam said.

All week, with lesser ingredients, the chefs had rehearsed almost every dish. Today they work the kitchen with practiced efficiency and no trace of nerves. They don’t use measuring spoons or timers, and aside from Henry’s incident with the oil, they don’t lose any ingredients to mishaps or crossed signals. Jon, Samacon’s youngest and most focused chef, assigns Henry and Brendan tasks that send them scurrying across the bamboo floor. Sam tosses two scorched eggplants into Jon’s Vitamix 5200 and grinds them to a sweet, smoky paste. He tries a teaspoonful, letting it settle on his palate. “Needs sherry,” he says.

“Don’t put too much sherry in it because of the red pepper,” Jon warns.

Macklin drops a slotted spoon into a tall, steaming pot and captures a sweetbread. He gives it a jab with his finger and then throws it back in.

“They’re being poached,” Henry tells me, his blond bangs wilting in the steam. Then turning to Macklin, “Did I use the right terminology?”

“Poached in lime and lemon juice and chicken stock,” says Macklin. He’s dressed in a vintage short-sleeved shirt with thick red and white stripes—standard issue for selling saltwater taffy on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1952. “This is how they do sweetbreads at Animal,” he explains. “They said that when you’re preblanching sweetbreads, you have to cook them to the consistency of…” he trails off.

Of what? I ask him.

“Silicone breast implants.”

“Macklin, Jesus,” Jon says.

“I had visions of lots of things other than that, when he was so circumspect about talking about it,” says Jon’s mother, Robyn, at her usual post in the kitchen. The boys have slept at her house for the past couple of nights. Twice they’ve tried to watch the Disney movie Ratatouille on Jon’s flat screen, and both times they’ve fallen asleep before Remy the Rat becomes the greatest chef in all of France.

 

Table for Five

 7 p.m. the table has been set in the Sewitz dining room, with its polished limestone floor, antique Chinese doors, and high-backed seats designed by Jon’s dad. To psych themselves up, Sam, Macklin, and Jon are sporting white headbands, the kind favored by Ginsu-wielding chefs at those rock-and-roll sushi palaces of the ’90s. The look clashes with the Zen-like tranquillity they’ve maintained as they’ve prepped the dinner. They might be more anxious if they were able to read the thoughts of the guests now trickling in for the meal.

Nancy Silverton is the first to arrive, in chunky eyeglasses and a dark coat, her hair a mass of curls gathered tightly on top of her head. She plants a big kiss on Robyn’s cheek and gives the boys a maternal hug. All the while she’s puzzling over how she’s going to give the boys honest feedback about a meal she doesn’t expect to be spectacular.

A few minutes later come Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook, hirsute and stocky in respectable dark sweaters. Dotolo has been worrying about the food as well. On the ride over he’d asked Shook what they should do if the meal bombs. “I think it’s going to be pretty good,” Shook assured him. “They didn’t do that bad when they were in the kitchen at Animal.”

Then Ludo Lefebvre strides in, the rolled-up sleeves of his plaid shirt revealing a riot of tattoos, his hair thick and stylishly cut. As the boys awkwardly shake his hand, he’s not sure what to make of them. He just knows that he wouldn’t have felt comfortable cooking for a bunch of chefs when he was their age. In fact, Neal Fraser is the only chef who comes to the dinner table with high expectations.

The guests don’t have much time to settle into their seats before Sam, Jon, and Henry swoop down in dive-bomber formation with the amuse-bouche. Brendan follows, filling the glasses halfway. Sly and the Family Stone play on hidden speakers. “So this is sort of an amuse,” Macklin says with an adrenaline grin. “It’s squid marinated in kimchi, and there’s a little bit of kimchi at the bottom. There is lime zest and parsley, and then we have unfiltered sake. I don’t know much about pairing, but we went to a wine place, and they told us that this would go well with it.”

The chefs wait until the boys are safely back in the kitchen before anyone gives the dish a try. Silverton scoops up the squid, finishes it in a bite, and scans the table for reactions. “All right,” she says. “I’m impressed.”

“As an amuse,” Lefebvre says, “it’s good.”

The mood dampens with the arrival of the second course, which Jon introduces as a Kumamoto oyster with buttermilk sauce, a disk of dark chocolate, radish, and fennel fronds on top. The guests spend a few moments contemplating the glistening bulk on their plates with the gallowslike expression of that Dr. Seuss character compelled to try a mouthful of green eggs and ham. “The first time I cooked an oyster for my family,” Lefebvre says, “I was 14 years old. I didn’t prepare the oysters very well. I kept them out all day.”

“And everyone got sick?” Silverton says, laughing. Lefebvre gives her a sheepish nod.

“Are you trying to warn me?” Fraser asks Lefebvre, looking up from his dish. “Is that what you’re telling me?”

When they finally put it in their mouths, most seem astonished to find that the combination isn’t awful. Fraser is almost enthusiastic. “The fattiness of the chocolate is completely different from the fattiness of the oysters, you know what I mean?” he says. “Usually you just swallow oysters. Because of the texture of the chocolate, though, you can almost chew them together.”

“You know what I appreciate?” says Silverton. “That the chocolate is so thin.”

“I don’t taste the chocolate,” says Lefebvre. “I don’t know about the dish, but I like the risk. I love risk in cooking. And it’s not bad.”

The third course—cubed scallop, radish, and black sesame—is a hit. “It’s cool that they have that edge, to think of that combination at this age,” Lefebvre says. By the time she’s tried the sweetbreads with burnt eggplant puree, almond marshmallow, and two-toned parsley bread crumbs, Silverton is verging on exuberance. “These bread crumbs are beautiful,” she says. “And their technique from start to finish is spot-on.”

“It’s a solid dish,” Lefebvre says. “I have some cooks working for me for a long time—I don’t know if they could do a dish like this. And the sweetbread is cooked perfectly. It’s very pink inside and crispy. Perfect! To see this technique at this age…”

“You know what I think we need? We need a photo of our plates,” Silverton says. She waves over the photographer who’s shooting the meal for this story. Turning to me, she says, “We’re not being polite.”

“I am from France,” Lefebvre says. “I’m not polite.”

In the kitchen there’s no clattering, no commotion, no voices raised in panic or frustration, no rushing feet or bodies bumping into each other. Macklin rests his knuckles against the loup de mer on the cooling rack. “The fish is done,” he says. “The skin could be a bit crispier.” He gently lowers each fillet back into the frying pan. The seasonal vegetables in their butter glaze are bright as protoplasm beneath the lights. Sam, Jon, Brendan, and Henry plate them in a tight circle. The loup de mer is placed atop, slightly cantilevered, skin side up.

It’s fallen to Jon again to introduce the dish. “On the bottom is our attempt to have a traditional French sauce, and it’s a sauce bercy,” he says, pronouncing it “ber-say.”

“It’s what?” Lefebvre asks.

“Ber-say,” Jon says.

“Ah, ber-see,” Lefebvre says. Then, like a schoolteacher: “Remember it the next time when you speak French.”

Oui, oui,” says Jon, backing out of the room.

“So why do you think he said ‘attempted’ to do a sauce?” Silverton asks after the boys have gone.

“ ’Cause Ludo’s sitting here,” Fraser says.

“It’s cool that they do a classic like this,” says Lefebvre. “It’s well balanced. You have molecular dishes and then a little classic. And what I’m impressed with is really their technique, and the fish is cooked perfectly. The skin is crispy.”

“The vegetables are cooked really nice,” says Dotolo.

“I like this even better than the sweetbreads,” says Shook. “I wish I could get a dish this caliber at most restaurants in the city.”

“This city?” says Silverton. “Any city.”

The dishes the boys had cooked during their practice sessions looked beautiful, and what I’d tried tasted pretty amazing. But just as Silverton came to this meal worrying about the euphemisms she’d have to come up with, I was concerned about having to hear praise that would betray itself as little more than a pat on the head. Nonetheless this is getting ridiculous—five of the city’s leading chefs cleaning their plates, raving about the food, and as best as I can tell, meaning every word. Seeking shelter from the hosannas, I return to the kitchen. Sam asks how they like the meal. After I repeat some choice quotes, the boys are hugging each other and high-fiving.

“We should all stick together,” Sam says. “I don’t really want to graduate anymore.”

“I just want to cook for chefs,” Jon says.

“I just don’t want to go to school tomorrow,” Macklin says. “Let’s just open a restaurant.”

“Yeah,” Sam says. “Can we open a restaurant now?”

“Hey,” says Henry, “we’re getting way ahead of ourselves.”

Tonight will be the culmination of their work together. Jon, though he’ll have two more years to decide, is thinking of skipping higher education, since it would be too big a detour from his goal of becoming a professional chef. This fall Macklin is bound for Bard College, in the Catskills, and Sam might take a year off to travel before beginning at Reed College, in Oregon. They may still end up opening restaurants, or they’ll be pulled away by fresh possibilities. Jon will be getting his driver’s license soon, able to transport himself to a new restaurant job—wherever it may be—on weekends. But it seems certain that none of the chefs they’ve worked under or might work under, and none of the other friends they’ve made or will make, are likely to have nearly the same impact on their creative growth as they’ve had on each other.

The next dish—hay-roasted pork medallions with coleslaw, minimalist barbecue sauce, and mahogany-tinged roasted potatoes on a cat-eye-shaped plate—seems to flow right out of them. So too the whiskey-tangerine-nutmeg palate cleanser and the hazelnut streusel with coffee soil, hay ice cream, and caramel broth. In the dining room Fraser admires the spare Scandinavian beauty of the final course: pear sorbet, sponge cake, apricot puree, lemongrass, lemon rind, and chamomile gel. “This,” he says, “is the essence of winter. It’s kind of stoic. Like if Ingmar Bergman made a dessert, this is what it would taste like, right?”

“I’m glad that there is one smart person at this table,” says Shook.

Tentatively the teen chefs peek in, then pull up a few chairs.

“You’re the calmest cooks I’ve ever seen,” Silverton says. “We think you did…”

“An amazing job,” says Shook.

“To cook a fish perfectly,” says Lefebvre, “or do a sweetbread perfectly, or cook pork perfectly—that’s not easy.”

“Everyone at this table was so blown away by the technique that you guys put into the dishes,” says Dotolo, “and the thoughtfulness of them all—even though we all taste the food differently. If you stay in this business, it will constantly happen where some people taste something and they might love it, and some people might hate it, especially if you guys are taking risks, which you’re obviously doing, which is cool. Definitely don’t stop doing that.”

“We all said that we could have been eating at anyone’s restaurant as a contemporary,” says Silverton. “Anywhere, easily…”

“Now we’re going to do one of the most embarrassing things,” says Shook. “The applause.

Slumped in their chairs or over the table, the Samacon chefs absorb it all, exhilarated but beyond exhaustion, their faces still flushed after the clapping dies down. “So,” says Macklin, grinning at the dinner party. “Now are you guys going to cook for us?”  

ALSO READ:
Click here for the teen chefs' recipes! 

Photographs by Jennifer Rocholl

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