PIttsburgh chef 'stars' in children's book 'Kalamata's Kitchen'
Kalamata is a little girl who’s curious about food, as long as it meets her at eye-level — which is usually under the kitchen table, imagining adventures. Luckily, there are a few grown-ups who are willing to oblige, including one of Pittsburgh’s best chefs, Trevett Hooper (Legume, Butterjoint, Pie For Breakfast).
That’s the formula for the “Kalamata’s Kitchen” series of books by Sarah Thomas, who grew up in Somerset, and now works as a sommelier at the renowned Le Bernardin in New York City.
It’s her second book in the series; eventually, she hopes to have the series feature cities’ food scenes and chefs across the country.
“It was Derek Wallace’s idea, my business partner,” says Thomas. “He came to me with this idea of a food adventure brand. We looked at this landscape of food books for kids — there was a lot of instructional advice, but no characters that really connected children with the experience of food itself. He knew he wanted the character’s name to be ‘Kalamata’ — and asked me, ‘Can you create this character?’ ”
Thomas has a master’s degree in Renaissance literature from the University of Cambridge — but always loved, and collected, children’s literature. She jumped at the chance to write some of her own.
Kalamata is very much inspired by her own upbringing.
“My parents are both South Indian and incredible cooks,” Thomas says. “I grew up in a very vibrant kitchen and cooking environment. I think my strongest memories are of food. The spices are very strong — there’s a lot of flavor and aroma. I’d sit under the kitchen table and read books and have these imaginative romps, bound by my mom’s kitchen.” Each story features a local chef, or “Taste Bud,” as they call them.
Telling tales of childhood
“Each is inspired by a food sense-memory that takes them back to their childhood,” Thomas explains. “Kalamata gets to be drawn into the narrative that way. Trevett takes her back to the apple orchard where he used to pick apples with his dad.”
Hooper, a father of five, was happy to be included — though his kids “thought it was a hoax,” at first.
“I agreed to share my story because I think anything that gets kids to think about cooking and eating homemade food is a great thing,” he says. “I think it is very important that kids learn some basics about where food comes from and how it is made, because it can be an important part of developing a healthy relationship with food that can extend into adulthood.”
Thomas spent the early part of her food career working in Pittsburgh kitchens — she was once wine director of Bar Marco in the Strip — which is how she met Hooper.
“Legume is one of the foundational restaurants of fine dining in Pittsburgh,” she explains. “It is more upscale, but he has such a strong food philosophy — how he sources his product, how he works with his staff and presents his food to people. It’s so comforting and good and unpretentious. He’s someone I’ve admired as a chef and leader. He has the biggest heart, and very strongly connected to the roots that made him the man he is today.”
Of course, the books also have recipes. This one includes recipes for Trevett’s Baked Beans and Trevett’s Apple Butter.
In addition to the books, there’s TasteBudTravelGuide.com, which is a guide to cities, and great places to eat where kids are welcome and not an afterthought. Pittsburgh’s guide includes the likes of Apteka, Superior Motors and Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream — which also happen to be among the best the city has to offer.
“We asked each of these chefs, ‘Be honest with us. Do you want parents to bring kids?’ ” Thomas notes.
Pittsburgh has James Beard Award-nominated chefs who actually want families in their restaurants — which isn’t always the case elsewhere, Thomas notes.
Chefs as role models
“A lot of times, kids have role models that are athletes or musicians,” Thomas says. “We’re trying to build up this idea that chefs are real-life leaders, and they steer a lot of the cultural conversation in their cities.”
Getting kids to try new things is often a struggle. Thomas hopes Kalamata helps to pique kids’ curiosity about food.
“Food really connects everybody. Everybody has stories about food, everybody shares food. Stories that come from people who cook food are resonant at a deep human level.”
It’s a message that’s especially timely right now, asserts Thomas.
“We’re trying to push positivity into the world,” Thomas says. “It can be a bit chaotic and harrowing out there. We want to bring people back to elemental ideas of cooking and kitchens and home and dining — to spread connectivity and community. We welcome everybody. We want to bring everybody to the table.”
Michael Machosky is a contributing writer.