Ava Clark is more skilled in the kitchen than most people I know. She's got a repertoire of tried-and-true recipes that only comes with spending years in the kitchen—testing this, experimenting with that. Seared pork chops glazed in a rich, tangy reduction of white wine, Dijon mustard, and red wine vinegar: a house specialty. Charred sardines with a side of escarole: easy, late-summer snacking. Expertly sliced avocado sprinkled with flaky sea salt: just another Tuesday.
The only difference between Ava and, well, pretty much any home cook I've ever met?
She's 11 years old.
Of course, it shouldn't come as a huge surprise that Ava found an early niche in cooking—her mom is Alex Guarnaschelli, a Food Network star, Iron Chef, and the executive chef at Butter in New York City.
But it wasn't necessarily a given.
"I felt really strongly that Ava should 'find' the kitchen on her own terms," Chef Guarnaschelli said recently over email. Which she did. After discovering a 9-year-old Ava carefully slicing button mushrooms, gently cooking them in butter, and adding a squeeze of lemon to round out the dish with a bit of acidity, "That's when I knew," she told me.
Ava, however, has known a bit longer than that. "I have loved cooking for the last four to five years," she said.
Still, it's easy to see where she gets her inspiration from—or at least that's what you'd think.
Much to her mom's lighthearted chagrin, Ava counts her cooking heroes as Julia Child and Gordon Ramsay, and is already starting to display some of their chef-y intuition.
"Ava is very territorial and independent about cooking. She acts like a chef," Guarnaschelli said. "She also has such a natural instinct that I don’t want to get in her way."
"I like it when my mom is in the kitchen but leaves me alone to cook something on my own," Ava told me. And if she has a question or two, Guarnaschelli is always there to lend her expertise or share a bit of wisdom. "My mom is teaching me patience. There are those moments where there is nothing to do but wait for food to cook. I am learning about that."
But that doesn't stop the soon-to-be teenager from poking fun at her mom's culinary chops at least every once in awhile: "She thinks she’s so cool because she is an Iron Chef."
There's no denying, though, that the two connect over their shared love of food. "We recently visited Rome, Italy together where we bonded over the beauty of a whole, steamed artichoke," Guarnaschelli told me. "We discussed the beauty of gloriously, if ever-so-slightly overcooked vegetables that characterize the great cooking of Rome. She has such a nuanced understanding of what deliciousness is—I didn’t have any of that at her age."
But will she become a chef? According to Guarnaschelli, that couldn't matter less: "The jury is not out yet on whether I will find behind the stove of a restaurant somewhere...although, it certainly wouldn’t surprise me."
What matters more is that Ava finds something she loves, a lesson Guarnaschelli's own parents taught her. "I don’t care if she becomes an accountant, fire fighter, vacuum cleaner salesperson, deep sea diver, writer or chef. I’m totally excited to watch her life unfold."
Ava, who plans to spend a portion of this summer tending to a vegetable and herb garden (garlic "garden" bread will surely be on her menu this season), is inspiringly resolute: "I want to own my own restaurant and be my own boss." Right now she's thinking she may want to open a Mexican or tapas-style spot, or maybe even a wine bar. In the meantime, she'll be hosting a master class alongside her mom at this year's New York City Food and Wine Festival and, you know, finishing her homework after school.
When she does make it big, whether it's as a chef or deep sea diver, Ava has one other goal she wants to check off her list.
"I want to take my mom to Paris as a present," she said, "and thank her for being a pretty good mother."