Even though Elm restaurant in downtown New Canaan is elegantly brimming with creative gourmet dishes, the chef doesn't want the atmosphere to be too grown-up.
"It can be amazing food, it can be inventive, … but it can also be part of a family night out," says Brian Lewis, as he sits several children around a table, covered in fresh, green vegetables and begins to scribble on a big easel, part of a new free weekend program called Lil Foodies. "The workshop is really just this blue sky idea of, 'Hey, what do you like to eat'?"
Lewis and his partners hope to inspire kids to eat better, appreciate local food and begin a life-long healthy attitude toward mealtime.
"It's amazing how excited the kids get, to be empowered to feel like food is this engine and center of the conversation," says Lewis, who loves to see a positive reaction from parents and children. "Everyone is just so happy and giddy at the table that food is not a chore."
Before the brainstorming session, the group visits a local farmer's market, and after the veggie demo, the kids form a team and create a menu that they can then order at the restaurant for the next month. Lewis challenges food stereotypes, suggesting eggs for dinner with his signature entree, Egg Yolk Raviolo, and resists being too fancy by putting his own unique spin on familiar, comfortable foods, such as grilled cheese with homemade bread and green tomatoes. He tells kids that their favorite picks don't have to come from a box: "If we do macaroni and cheese, it's farm-fresh eggs to make the dough. We make the pasta ourselves."
Lewis grew up in New York but spent years cooking professionally on the West Coast and overseas.
"I came back to start a project with Richard Gere, called the Bedford Post Inn," he explains. "It came off as a wild success and it was a great run. I was there for about four years."
Now he is committed to establishing roots in Fairfield County, giving adult cooking lessons and mentoring students. Whitney Woerz, 12, shadowed Lewis before she recently auditioned for a TV reality show, "Junior MasterChef." While she didn't make it, she will be helping out with Lil Foodies where kids are respectfully "offered" new choices but not "forced" to eat them.
"Whenever my friends and I hang out together, we always do cooking, and that's really, really fun," says Woerz, adding that not all small kids insist on eating chicken fingers and hot dogs. "They should be able to try the exotic foods that are really good."
With sparkling eyes, Lewis talks of someday becoming a dad and raising his little ones around the restaurant. But for he's focusing on Lil Foodies, which takes place on the first Saturday of every month, for up to 16 children. He hopes the concept will grow to include visits from school groups and inner-city kids: "Cooks have a real gift to share with people, a passion. To share that side with young, inspiring children is pretty special."
For more information, check out www.elmrestaurant.com.