Teen Chef Comfy In The Kitchen

For a 14-year-old, Derek Williams doesn’t watch a whole lot of television. And when he does, he tunes almost exclusively to one station. One might hazard a guess: Nickelodeon, maybe? MTV? ESPN?

Nope. Derek’s focus is on the Food Network.

The Shadyside High School freshman was channel-surfing two years ago when he landed on a cooking show and found he “couldn’t stop watching,” he said. His favorite chefs include Michael Symon, Tyler Florence, Bobby Flay and Guy Fieri.

(Incidentally, he also watches “Man V. Food” on the Travel Channel. Inspired by the eating feats on the show, he entered and won second place at a wing-eating contest at River City Ale Works this year, gobbling 39 wings in 15 minutes. The winner ate 40.)

As with many a Food Network fan, it wasn’t long before Derek’s interest moved from the couch to the kitchen. He jumped right in and started cooking meals for the whole family, which includes mom Dena Porter, step-dad Adrian Porter and siblings David, 11; Dylan, 8 and Maria, 1. His preferred cooking style is grilling; his specialty is steak.

But he also found he likes to bake, a joy he discovered this summer as a vendor at the Ohio Valley Farmers’ Market in Bellaire on Saturdays. He has a business name, DK Bakes, and a sign to make it official.

He offers market patrons a variety of baked goods each week, such as french bread, oatmeal bread, chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies, and cupcakes.

“Oh, and apple and blueberry pies,” Derek added. And does he make his crusts from scratch? “Sure,” he said, “it’s not that hard.”

“Derek seems very intent on becoming a chef, and I am quite impressed by his commitment to being at the market almost every Saturday this season,” said Susan West of Lone Oak Farms, one of the market organizers. “When Chef Gene Evans (of West Virginia Northern Community College’s culinary arts program) made his first appearance at our market, I made it a point to introduce Derek to Gene. You would have thought the boy had died and gone to heaven. He was obviously excited, especially when Gene invited him to tour the culinary arts department at WVNCC.”

West also commented on Derek’s offerings.

“I have had (Derek’s) French bread and chocolate chip cookies. Both were good, but my absolute favorite is the chocolate zucchini cake! Yum!” West said via e-mail.

“I really like the farmers’ market because I think it’s a good way to bring people together,” Derek said. “I think (the patrons) are really interested in getting food from a teenager. …” He has met the various farmers, and bought ingredients from them, too. He raved about sausage and lamb steak he purchased from Eric Riggle of Crossroads Farm in St. Clairsville. And, yes, he enjoyed meeting Chef Gene.

Derek said he has earned an average of $30 profit each week, and he sinks most of it into savings for a one-day baking class at Enrico Biscotti Co. in the Strip District of Pittsburgh.

Any parent whose child shows even a hint of interest in something knows it ought to be encouraged, and so Dena has encouraged Derek.

“We kind of plan the meals together, what we’re going to do. He helps me on a daily basis and can do whatever I ask him,” she said. “And he’s taught me a thing or two with watching that Food Network. He’s like, ‘Let’s do it this way.'”

He does the cooking for all the special occasions, and recently baked and decorated a pink, green and purple butterfly cake for his sister’s first birthday party.

“They usually like the testing of my food,” Derek said. “They always compliment me.” He added his siblings get frustrated they can’t eat what he bakes for the farmers’ market, so he usually makes extra for them.

On his birthday and at Christmas, Derek’s wish list includes cookbooks, small appliances and kitchen gadgets. For example, he has received a knife set, a deep fryer and all sorts of utensils. He bought a pasta maker with his own money, and has enjoyed making his own pasta with sauce and meatballs, entirely from scratch.

He subscribes to Food Network magazine and searches the Internet for new recipes. For his birthday last year, his dad and step-mother, who live in Columbus, presented him with a signed copy of Symon’s “Love to Cook” cookbook, now a prized possesion.

The family planted an herb garden this year, the bounty of which Derek has used in marinades, salad dressings and rubs.

“We’re thinking about starting a garden next year,” Dena said.

His signature dish – called D-Rockamo after his nickname – is sauteed beef tenderloins with red and yellow peppers and onions, and a sauce made of mayonnaise, honey, lemon juice, garlic and cayenne pepper.

“I just thought of it one day,” he said.

While he isn’t sure if wants to be a restaurant chef or a pastry chef, Derek already is looking into culinary schools to attend after high school, including the Culinary Institute of America in New York and the Art Institutes, either in Pittsburgh or California. He especially likes Italian cooking and hopes to visit Italy someday.

For now, he is looking forward to finishing out the farmers’ market season and honing his skills in his high school cooking class this fall.

“I’m so glad he found something he loves to do,” Dena said. “It’s kind of hard at that age -if you’re not athletic, you’re not in the ‘in’ crowd. … His one friend is big into football. (Derek) doesn’t want to play football, he just wants to cook for the team!”