Kid de Cuisine

Written by Dominic Armato Category: People Issue: May 2015
Group Mid-Level
Character count 2500
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Gilbert chef Cody Vasquez cooks up enthusiasm for healthful eating in schools while getting recognition from Food Network and the White House.

Twelve-year-old Gilbert resident Cody Vasquez builds forts in the backyard with his friends, then steps into the kitchen, dons an apron, and suddenly is all business.

“We’ll add three-quarters cup of olive oil,” he says, measuring the oil into a mixing bowl. “It has to be extra virgin. I get mine from Queen Creek Olive Mill.”

He’s making an orange-scented olive oil cake, and it’s like watching a live-action stand-and-stir cooking show with a host who can barely see over the top of the KitchenAid mixer. His apron is clean and crisp, his ingredients are carefully arrayed, and when the pan goes in the oven, he quickly retrieves an already completed cake, ready for a glamour shot. The youngest of three children and the cook in a family of athletes, Cody wasn’t always the center of attention, but securing a spot on Food Network and an invitation to the White House has given him a well-deserved turn in the spotlight.

Though his father played minor league baseball and his siblings are accomplished athletes, Cody prefers the sidelines when it comes to sports. “I did soccer when I was younger,” Cody explains, “but it wasn’t that fun.” Instead, he’s a loyal cheerleader, rooting for his family while pursuing a growing passion of his own: the kitchen.

Cody’s parents, Tim and Julie Vasquez, both come from restaurant families, so the provenance of his culinary talents was never a mystery. “I come from a long line of chefs... I always thought it was genetic,” muses Julie’s father, Pat Minitti. Cody’s two sets of grandparents collectively founded Poncho’s, Someburros, Minitti’s, and Finelli’s, and he grew up in their kitchens, baking with both grandmothers and helping Pat prepare the family’s Sunday dinner every week.

Sunday dinner is no small affair. “We usually have 25 to 30 people,” Minitti explains. “Cody’s my sous chef. He’s there by my side the entire time, slicing and dicing.”  A seasoned kitchen veteran, Minitti knows culinary talent and diligence when he sees it. “If I give him a job to do, he’ll stay there and clean out 15 pounds of squid,” he says with pride. “And he’s my taster. He says, ‘Well, it might need a little more citrus.’ So we’ll spruce it up and it’s dead on.”

In 2013, Cody submitted “Minestrone with Pesto” to Michelle Obama’s Healthy Lunchtime Challenge. He’d long been a fan of the First Lady. “I heard that she liked kids getting active and healthy eating, and I thought that was really cool and inspiring,” he says. His soup wasn’t selected, but he resolved to try again in 2014, when he entered his “Shrimp Tacos with Watermelon Jicama Salad.” The recipe earned him an invitation to Washington, D.C. to attend the Kids’ State Dinner, where the White House kitchen prepared the winning dishes. He met the First Lady in person, and also had a moment, in spirit, with another one of his heroes. “Besides the White House, my favorite thing was the Smithsonian,” he remembers. “They had Julia Child’s actual kitchen, and it was super cool to see it.”

Cody holding his orange olive oil cake with Jan D’Atri when he appeared on Arizona Midday on Channel 12.

Cody had also applied for Food Network’s Kids Baking Championship, and after a lengthy audition process, was invited to compete on the show. He was gobsmacked. “Cody is a Food Network junkie,” Tim explains. “He gets up at 6:00, and we walk out and Giada [De Laurentiis] is on, Ina Garten’s on – this is the World Series for him.” The problem? The show conflicted with the Kids’ State Dinner.

Though Kids Baking Championship was a dream opportunity, Cody felt the First Lady’s healthy eating initiative was more important than an appearance on national television. Thankfully, Food Network agreed to let him miss the first day of a 10-day production schedule and saved him the agonizing decision.

The four-episode competition aired in February, and while Cody didn’t bring home the grand prize, he won the first challenge and an army of admirers. After years of cheering his siblings, it was an eye-opening experience, granting him the opportunity to participate in a competition suited to his talents, and also to bond with other kids who shared his obsession. “Being able to talk about stuff we make, like different herb butters, and recipes,” he explains, “I’ve never gotten to talk about that with another kid.”

Back home, Cody has taken Michelle Obama’s challenge to “pay it forward” to heart. He’ll make a lunch of quinoa salad, grilled chicken breast, flax crackers and strawberries dipped in cream cheese, posting photos on social media to set an example for other kids. He’s started a pair of garden boxes at Quartz Hill Elementary, where he attends school. “We’re picking radishes, and some kids haven’t had a radish before. It’s really neat.” He also organized a charity bake sale and raised more than $3,000 for No Kid Hungry. Needing more prep space, he borrowed Jared Allen’s kitchen at Proof Bakery in Mesa. “He knew how to handle himself,” Allen recalls. “His community showed up... to support him and this great cause. This kid could do amazing things.”

Cody is taking a needed breather before contemplating his future plans, but he dreams of a return to Food Network, and he’s busy expanding his repertoire. “Now I’m trying to learn sushi and Vietnamese,” he says. This sudden interest in Eastern culture isn’t limited to food: “My room is very Zen.”

He isn’t kidding. It has a miniature rock garden, diffusers with essential oils, orchids, multiple Buddhas, and a Himalayan salt lamp overlooking a vintage manual typewriter that he uses to tap out new recipes, like holiday peppermint fudge, or his current lunchtime favorite, a mustardy chicken salad pita pocket. It’s a tranquil oasis where he can rest and recharge, remember the events of last summer and contemplate what to do next. But for the moment, whatever the future may hold, life seems to have returned to normal.

“Now everybody at school thinks baking is cool and healthy eating is cool.”

See? Completely normal.

 

Cody’s Orange Olive Oil Cake
“I started making the orange olive oil cake because during the winter we get so much citrus on our trees,” Cody Vasquez explains. “So most of my stuff comes from stuff we have here in Arizona, like oranges and shrimp tacos.”

Ingredients
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup sugar
2 eggs
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil (Queen Creek Olive Mill)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
juice and zest of 1 orange
(about 3 tbsp. juice and 1 tbsp. zest)
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
confectioner’s sugar for dusting
butter for greasing the pan


Directions
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Grease and flour a 9-inch baking pan.
Mix together sugar and eggs in mixer on medium speed.
Drizzle in olive oil and vanilla.  Mix until light and smooth.  
Add flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a separate bowl.  Add flour mixture half at a time to wet ingredients.  Mix on low just to incorporate.
Pour into pan.
Bake 25-30 minutes.
Let cool for 15 minutes and dust with confectioner’s sugar.