By Sabrina Medora, photography by Farrah Skeiky
Although not in his own kitchen, 14-year-old Owen Pereira moves with familiarity, building flavors in a cast-iron pot in an autumnal riff on potato soup. He mentions that the recipe is based on one by Los Angeles chef Ludo Lefebvre as though he borrowed it from a friend. And, the truth is, he’d rubbed elbows with some of the greats before entering high school.
“It’s filling, and it warms up the soul,” he reasons, using phrases and techniques beyond his years. We asked him to throw together a one-pot dish, and he explains why he picked potato soup as a canvas. “I add more things to it than you would find in a normal potato soup, to enhance flavors. I like giving it a bacon-y, salty, smoky bite.” The aromas in the air add promise to his words.
His instincts in the kitchen are those of a born natural—or a seasoned competitor. At age 13, Owen, a Baltimore resident, won “Top Chef Junior” and walked away with $50,000. Most of that money’s been put on ice for his future, but Owen doesn’t seem to be waiting to pursue his kitchen dreams.
“I learned a lot on the show about cooking with speed and keeping yourself organized,” he says as his hands deftly begin peeling potatoes. “In a restaurant, there’s no physical clock timing you but you’re always on the clock.”
Owen cares a lot about honing his skills, and is lined up to stage (a brief, unpaid internship) with some of the best chefs in the country over the next year. His list of mentors includes Chicago greats such as Noah Sandoval and Grant Achatz, along with Baltimore favorite Cindy Wolf.
“He can be a little precocious and very ambitious,” chuckles his mom, Susan, who took time off from her job to accompany Owen while he competed on “Top Chef Junior.” She seems proud and a little amused. Like so many his age, Owen is ready to grow up. Unlike most, he has a solid plan.
“I want to open my own restaurant when I’m 18,” Owen states as he tosses pancetta, garlic and leeks into a pot. “I have very high standards for myself. People tell me they’re too high but if there’s even the tiniest mistake [with my food], I won’t be happy no matter how many good parts there are.”
Owen’s quest for perfection in the kitchen began at a young age.
“He showed interest in cooking when he was around 3 years old,” Susan recounts. “He loved stirring things and making scrambled eggs. But 11 was when he really took it upon himself.”
“I had gotten The French Laundry Cookbook,” Owen chimes in. “I didn’t understand a thing, so I returned it. I got Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and after that I went and rebought The French Laundry.” Soon after, Owen began applying for spots on “MasterChef Junior” and competed on “Chopped Junior” before making his way to “Top Chef Junior.”
For Owen, it’s not about the money, which he won’t see for a while.
“His winnings are in an online CD, and he won’t get access to them until he’s 21,” his mother explains.
It’s all about the experience and exposure to as many of the greats as possible. He refers to top chefs like they’re old friends, both reverent and ready to be on their level as quickly as possible.
So, what’s next for the young chef? Not a lot of cooking dinners at home, apparently.
“We’re at an impasse, because he hates to clean up after himself and I don’t want to,” Susan laughs.
More likely, he’ll be seeking stages with notable DC–area restaurants, grooming himself to some day drop the “junior” from his “Top Chef” title.
Potato Leek Soup with Pancetta and Pine Nuts
1 cup pancetta
¼ cup pine nuts
3 cloves garlic, minced
5 potatoes, Yukon Gold or small Russets, peeled and roughly chopped
3 cups chicken stock
½ pint heavy cream
½ stick butter
Dandelion greens to garnish
Cook the pancetta in a large pot or Dutch oven on medium heat until crispy. Remove pancetta from the pan, but leave behind pan juices.
Turn down the heat and add pine nuts to cook in the pancetta fat, tossing continuously, about 3 minutes. Be careful not to burn them. Remove pine nuts from pan with a slotted spoon.
Increase heat to medium and add garlic and leeks to the pan, stirring occasionally until softened and garlic is translucent.
Add potatoes and chicken stock.
Cover the pan and bring soup to a rolling boil for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Use an immersion blender to blend the potatoes and leeks into a silky soup texture. Add a half-pint of heavy cream and a half-stick of butter, combining until incorporated and heated through.
Serve immediately and garnish with pancetta, pine nuts and dandelion greens.