October 27, 2021
Austin is 12 years old. Before he started learning to grow and cook his own food at primary school, his parents “wouldn't even let me get anywhere near the kitchen,” he says.
These days, Austin spends a lot of his time in the kitchen – behind his stand mixer making sourdough for the family, sharpening his chef’s knife, and perfecting the spice blend in his signature guacamole.
Austin’s passion for cooking began when he was about eight years old when his class at Cardinal McKeefry Catholic Primary in Wellington became part of the Garden to Table programme that runs in more than 200 schools across Aotearoa. The programme teaches tamariki (Children) to grow and cook their own fresh, seasonal produce during weekly sessions in their school gardens and kitchens.
For many kids, it’s the first time they’ve had the chance to develop these skills. Austin fell in love almost immediately.
“The first thing that felt like a proper culinary experience was making a lemon drizzle cake,” he says. “I got a lot of joy out of being able to know I made this from the start, instead of just buying it.”
Austin began to experiment with veggies, bringing home an armful of silverbeet from the school garden to use on pizza.
“You'd expect things that would have vegetables smeared into every little bit of a dish to be pretty average,” he says. “But the first time I had that silverbeet pizza, I realised that actually, this could work.”
When his school started publishing the Garden to Table recipe of the week in its newsletters, he kicked things up a notch at home – sometimes evicting his parents from the kitchen to prepare the family dinner himself.
The skills he needed were hard-won. On a memorable day in the school kitchen, Austin and a small group of classmates perfected their knife skills by chopping 5kg of onions ahead of a school fundraiser!
“No one really knew how to chop anything back then,” he remembers. “I went from crying every second I would insert the knife in the onion to being able to just get on with it.”
Now he chops onions “in the French style”, using a professional chef’s knife that was a gift from his dad.
Austin’s time in the Garden to Table programme has ended, but his adventurous cooking spirit keeps growing. During one COVID-19 lockdown, he cycled to the shops to buy soufflé ingredients on a whim, determined to master the notoriously tricky dessert.
He also began to bake the family’s bread, prompting a Christmas gift of a stand mixer from his mum to spare his aching hands.
“When I first started using it for cakes and bread, that's when I realised I could do this professionally,” Austin says. He hopes for a job in the culinary industry with a focus on fine dining and had a taster during the last school holidays when he worked the harvest on a truffle farm.
Experimentation is still a feature of Austin’s cooking. Ahead of his 12th birthday this year, Austin spent four months devising a new recipe – a Chicken Wellington. He intended it as a cheaper version of the famous beef dish. After two and a half hours in the kitchen, he served it to his family. It was a triumph!
“You can't be scared to try something new,” Austin says. Incorporating ingredients to “harmonise in this wonderful creation” that was months in the making explains why he loves to cook.
Austin traces that journey directly back to being part of Garden to Table at age 8.
“It's a life skill, and after a few months, we could all clearly see that there was an impact,” he says. The focus on cooking fresh vegetables “helps you discover all the things that you wouldn't necessarily consider before.”
One of those discoveries was celery soup – a prospect Austin was a little wary of but changed his mind after trying the dish that he and his classmates made. He loved it!
“I was hooked on celery for the next year,” he adds.
Although not every kid who participates in Garden to Table’s programmes will end up dreaming of chef’s whites, Austin reckons all children in New Zealand should have a chance to learn the skills that the programme teaches – if only so they can have more exciting lunch boxes.
“I cook fresh pasta every day for my lunch,” he says. “I find it a lot more joyful than having sad sandwiches.”
As told to the Garden to Table team. Images by Austin's proud mum.
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