"Dad, pass me a knife to cut, please." The confidence in his voice gave me a shiver down my spine.
Noah was just a four-year-old child; we were preparing a sauté and had to cut onions and carrots. Until that moment, the time spent in the kitchen with my son had been a pastime.
In that instant, I realized that the kitchen was becoming a "gym" for life.
It all started two years ago
Have you ever felt the desire to want to imprison time? To feel like you're on an escalator, one of the long horizontal ones we find in airports, you can stay still, but you still move.
"If there is something important in life to do, it must be done now". I still remember this phrase that I listened to five years ago on the radio while I was on the bus returning from work. Like millions of people every day, I left the house at seven in the morning and returned at seven in the evening. My son Matteo was four, Noah, one.
I was on the threshold of 40, and that phrase rang in my head for many weeks. A trivial phrase, but at that moment, I was probably more receptive.
Also read: Local father of three writes 'real and frank' account of raising kids in South Africa
I decided to change my life
Time was passing, and I was missing the best moments of my children's childhood. It was not an easy choice; at the time, my wife was not working. However, I decided to take leave to evaluate priorities.
In fact, I knew her priorities very well, but I never dared to face them. Why leave the security of a "permanent job" for a more flexible life with only one advantage: time management. There were many unknowns but few certainties.Time was an invaluable asset to me. I decided to change my life.
After several years of dealing exclusively with our children, my wife returned to work. I resigned and reinvented myself professionally. I began to manage children more actively.
Once the time factor was acquired, another problem arose: how could I manage it the best way? I had the feeling that a lottery winner could feel. After the first day of euphoria, it is essential to understand how to use the capital.
Also see: Getting kids to do household chores can improve their vocabulary and willingness to learn
Cultivating my passions
I decided to start cultivating my passions; cooking was one of them. While I was cooking, I noticed my son Noah taking his chair and approaching the kitchen one evening. He wanted to see what was happening in my magical world that I had never shared with anyone.
I saw his little head peeking out to observe the stoves, the knives, the spices; he was very intrigued.
Given his interest, I thought about buying him one of those kitchens for children, with fake pans and knives; it could be a way to develop his curiosity. I was wrong.
Fake cooker and pans weren't for him. Every evening he came back to me while I was in the kitchen. It wasn't the toy he was looking for; he was more interested in entering my world.
Noah was almost three years old and was starting Montessori kindergarten. Learning through experience was part of the training path I had chosen for him, so I decided to involve him actively.
Being so small, I gave him some easy tasks. Wash the salad, peel the garlic, work the pizza dough, clean the anchovies. The development of manual skills was one of the tools that Maria Montessori considered important for acquiring skills such as writing.
Observing Noah, I took note, through a "real laboratory", of how the kitchen was useful to stimulate his concentration. Peeling garlic requires a lot of application for a three-year-old child.
Breaking an egg at the beginning is a very complicated process because it requires knowing how to dose strength appropriately. Noah was growing, so I began to increase the difficulty of the assignments.
Given that his excellent dexterity and concentration developed over time in the kitchen, I introduced the use of the knife. I got him a children's knife, not very sharp like all caring dads. We took two cutting boards two tomatoes; I worked with my knife and he with his.
I wanted him to follow my example to cut the tomato on his own. Noah didn't understand why I could cut the tomato very easily, while he had to use a lot of force. He was 4 years old, and that day he said to me, "let me use your knife; it seems to me it works better".
I do not deny that the first impulse was protection, but Noah had already taken the knife and was very confidently cutting the tomato into slices. My heart was in my mouth to see those little fingers wielding a sharp tool.
I remembered Maria Montessori's phrase, "help me do it myself". Perhaps at that moment, it was right to listen to Maria. We had already spent a year together in the kitchen; I had given Noah all the tools to be autonomous, it was now up to him to test himself.
There was no lack of accidents along the way, but "Mister Error", as Montessori called it, was part of that baggage necessary to gain experience. A few cuts on his finger, the tears, the screams, Noah said, "that's enough with the kitchen". We respected his timing.
After a time away from the kitchen, he always came back with a different awareness that was noticeable from how he handled the knife, with much more concentration.
Together with my wife, we decided to share the incredible experience we were having with other families through Noahcooks2015 on Instagram.
Exploring the world
Then came the lockdown period during the pandemic, and the kitchen proved to be a powerful tool for developing educational skills that the school could not offer at the time.
First, mathematical knowledge, using the scale, discovering the tens and hundreds, making subtractions to understand how much time was missing to drain the pasta. I saw no limits even though Noah was just five years old. We transformed the activities in the kitchen into sensory games to recognize spices with closed eyes, fruits, and vegetables.
I realized that cooking could be useful for exploring the world. We visited the kitchen of Masen, the Syrian chef, those of Wandile Mabaso and David Higgs in South Africa and Noah understood how meat is prepared in different ways in different countries of the world. Even one of the most famous Indian chefs, Vicky Ratnani, sent videos to Noah to teach him how to make Kimchi.
Chef Michele Massari from New York taught him how to cook salmon in the sink. Michelin-starred chef, Dominique Crenn from San Francisco, cooked with Noah live on Instagram, showing the preparation of an elaborate dish of salmon with leek cream and béarnaise sauce.
Jerelle Guy also helped him work on a simple and tasty meatless recipe promoting the idea of eating more vegetables. Being half South African, Noah visited the kitchen of the Johannesburg chef David Higgs at Marble and cooked with Wandile Mabaso at his restaurants Les Creatives.
Learning while having fun
Early one morning, we went to Mohammed and Carlotta's fish market in the heart of Bologna, Italy, where Noah had the opportunity to spend a day at the counter recognizing the various types of fish and helping Mohammed fillet the fish by discovering their anatomy.
Cooking also became a way to develop his vocabulary and move beyond his shyness. This was also possible thanks to chefs such as Luca Giovanni Pappalardo, from Trattoria Pane e Panelle in Bologna, who opened the kitchen to Noah several times with single-issue lessons dedicated to knives that fascinated him a lot. By the time he turned six, Noah had developed a range of skills while having fun with dad and mom in the kitchen.
He learned to write independently because he wanted to prepare the shopping list for the recipes to be invented. I was his assistant. He knew how to use numbers, and he had learned to respect cooking times. He understood that the sequences in the kitchen are important.
Likewise, he learned geography and history from historians who helped him reconstruct the eating habits of the Etruscans and Egyptians. We had reached the end of this journey; Noah was starting elementary school with a piece of educational baggage built in the kitchen.
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