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9-Year-Old Chef Earns Seat at White House Dinner

By Amy Zimmer | July 27, 2012 11:27am

MANHATTAN — Sam Wohabe is a budding star in the city’s farm-to-table culinary world.

He spearheaded an effort to turn the rooftop of his Upper East Side co-op into a veggie garden where kids can plant and pick herbs, hot peppers, eggplants, zucchini, squash, cucumbers and strawberries. He’s been a guest assistant chef in a hot restaurant in Cozumel, Mexico.

And next month Sam will be dining with Michelle Obama at the White House after one of his recipes was selected in a contest focusing on healthy lunch.

But he’s not a household name yet. After all, he is only 9 years old.

Sam was one of 54 children, ages 8 to 12, selected from more than 1,200 entries for the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge travelling to Washington, D.C., for a kids’ “State Dinner,” hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama on Aug. 20. His recipe was selected as the best in New York State.

His dish, called “Fish Fueled Pepper Rocket with Kale Chips and Quinoa” — where he cored an orange bell pepper and baked it stuffed with pieces of halibut and grated Manchego piece to look like a rocket ship — won recognition from the panel that included White House Assistant Chef Sam Kass, the D.C.-based Spanish chef and James Beard Award winner José Andrés and Marshall and Alex Reid, authors of “Portion Size Me,” among others.

“When I was much, much younger my mom would let me help her cook, and then I started taking cooking classes,” said Sam on the phone from his family’s cabin upstate where he helps out on his neighbor’s farm and gets to keep some of the fresh bounty.

“I really like farm-to-table products,” he added, noting how he enjoys experiment in the kitchen. “I don’t like to make dishes other people have made. I like to make new things. … I’ve been practicing for years.”

Sam, a fourth grader at Léman Manhattan Prep in Lower Manhattan, who dreams of becoming a chef, has been taking cooking classes after school since he was in kindergarten and has participated in every cooking course Camp Léman has offered since he was old enough to take them, his mother said.

Earlier this summer, as part of an advanced cooking class at Léman, he and 11 other students prepared a meal for the parents that included homemade tortillas, a stir fry of seasonal veggies with a soy vegetable glaze, roasted chicken with pea puree and fingerling potatoes, and crème brulee with local berries.

“It was up there with any top restaurant,” Sam’s mom, Sheila Tendy, said.

She recounted how she got Sam involved in the cooking process as a “form of entertainment,” but was happy how he took to it.

“I believe that children should eat what the family eats, and if you make food that’s appealing, they’ll eat it,” she added.

Tendy credited him for inspiring their 340-unit building, the Plymouth Tower on East 93rd Street, to build its own rooftop garden.

“He could just run up on the elevator and clip some herbs and add them to what’s cooking,” she said.  “You really can connect the dots between knowing where the food comes from, watching how it’s grown and then eating it fresh. And it’s an exciting connection to what the First Lady is trying to do.”

She also commended last week’s meal Sam prepared for the family: a trout he caught himself.

The chefs at Léman were ecstatic about their budding protégé and star struck that he would be meeting Obama.

“Michelle Obama is a real champion of school food. She’s just my hero,” said chef Joanna De Vita.

She added: “We’re very proud of Sam. He’s a very passionate young cook and he has earned this.”

He’s taken the school’s cooking classes for seven straight semesters, she noted.

Chefs at the school have been on a mission to encourage picky-eating kids to broaden their palates. But Sam was in a class by himself, said De Vita and chefs Jenny Gensterblum and Tim Mangun on Thursday before prepping a lunch of roasted chicken and tofu, barley salad and zucchini.

“He may be the most enthusiastic culinary student we have,” Mangun said. “He’s very much on the right track to becoming a chef.”