Child Prodigy Chefs: Restaurants' Secret Weapon

Luke Thomas, England's top teen chef. (Aero Media)
Luke Thomas, England's top teen chef. (Aero Media)

Luke Thomas is the Lebron James of chefs. The 18-year-old culinary prodigy, who started working in restaurants at age 13, has just been recruited to play head chef at one of the top restaurants in England.

Check out: more child prodigies changing the world

It's the kind of career move that's 20 years in the making. Good thing Thomas started cooking at 4-years-old.

At the Michelin starred Sanctum on the the Green in Berkshire, England, Thomas is responsible for running every detail of the restaurant from staff management to menu design. With the pressure on to prove he's more than just a child prodigy, he's moved into a room ten feet from his workplace so he can devote 16 hours a day to his new job.

First of order business: re-imagining the menu. His revised 18 dish offering isn't for kids. Cauliflower soup with pork scratchings, slow-cooked sirloin steak with duck fat chips. It's a culmination of the work he began as a young kid, "playing with pots and pans", according to London's Evening Standard. By 15 he was working in a five-star restaurant. At 17, his culinary education, including travel to Dubai and Chicago, was funded by some of Europe's leading corporations. When he returned to his home country, he was ready to start serving England's royalty. (Crazy hat-wearing Princess Eugenie is a Sanctum patron.)

"It was like I was looking at a boy but talking to a 30-year-old," Mark Fuller, the hotelier who hired Thomas, told the Standard. "I've had more than 20 restaurants and worked with Marco, Gordon Ramsay and Joel Atunes - he is as good as any of them."

If life were like 'Top Chef', Thomas' fiercest competitor would be Greg Grossman, a 15-year-old New Yorker who has already commandeered his own pop-up restaurant and catering service. Grossman launched his "private chef" catering business for a hobnobbing crowd in the Hamptons when he was just 11. By 13 he had a TV development deal and at 15, he designed a four-course meal for a temporary restaurant at New York's Sanctuary hotel. Known for preparing mind-bending "molecular gastronomy"-a term he loathes- Grossman's prepared a four course $95 prix-fixe menu inspired by pop artists. On the menu: frozen carrot amuse bouche and a sirloin and foie gras mash in homage to artist Roy Lichtenstein. That was back in March. After that it was back to high school and homework, consulting on the menu for a new Thai restaurant opening downtown.

Child prodigy Greg Grossman hits the red carpet. (Getty Images)
Child prodigy Greg Grossman hits the red carpet. (Getty Images)

Read more: Hockey's 11-year-old whiz kid.

In the pastry division there's 12-year-old Jenay Benge. Since she turned 11, she's been responsible for one of the most popular desserts on the menu at Rathbun's Blue Plate Kitchen in Dallas.

After getting some neighborhood buzz, selling her lemon bars locally to pay for a cooking class, the bars made their way to celebrated Texas chef Kent Rathbun. He made a few tweaks to the recipe and hired the seventh grader as pastry-chef-at-large for his restaurant.

Actually, it wasn't that easy. "We went back to the drawing board after Kent tasted the lemon bars too many times to count," Benge told a Dallas Observer food critic. "Finally, they met his approval. He taught me how to zest a lemon the right way. I couldn't believe how much lemon juice and zest I added to get the right taste."

Practice made perfect, and Benge's bars have been named the best in the area. "An amazing feat of baking," writes the Observer's Steven Doyle. Regularly, Benge prepares large amounts of the tart treat and gets it Rathbun before the dinner rush. Since she's not old enough to drive, she pays her parents a delivery fee to drop her pastry boxes off at the restaurant. Hiring mom and dad to do the dirty work? Not bad for a first job.

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