He's charming, super-intelligent, and he makes a better bouillabaisse than you do. He's 11-year-old chef Rio Bowerman, a gourmet kid with a closetful of cooking gear and a featured spot on several local television shows. While most little boys are out shooting hoops and spitting, Chef Rio is indoors, chopping shallots and spit-roasting a guinea hen. He has a celebrity endorsement from the world's most expensive cookware company, a fondness for a good cigar, and the vocabulary of a 40-year-old. While a pair of noisy cockapoos growled and snapped at my heels, Chef Rio spoke to me about high tea, herb sorbet, and the importance of good cutlery.
New Times: Should I call you Chef Rio?
Rio Bowerman: Yes. I prefer that.
NT: How'd you get your start?
Bowerman: When I was seven or eight months old, I would wake my mom up, and ask her to get me dressed and take me into the kitchen so I could start cooking. I would select a specific spice, and I'd smell it and then I would make my mom take me to the store to get food that I thought would complement this particular herb.
NT: Eight months old? So it's always been about food for you.
Bowerman: Yeah. Always. Everything involves food. It's my life. (Indicates stack of magazines on coffee table.) When I'm not cooking food, I'm reading about food.
NT: And cigars. Why do you have a copy of Cigar Aficionado?
Bowerman: I love cigars. I'm only allowed to smoke them on New Year's Eve. A couple puffs. I've always found cigars to be very classy, and a sign of success. But you never should inhale cigar smoke, it's not good.
NT: I'll try to remember that. Now, most kids' idea of cooking is fixing a bowl of cereal.
Bowerman: Most kids think making a package of Kraft Easy Mac is cooking. Just fixing Oreos and milk is a huge accomplishment for them.
NT: Do you ever sneak garbage food, like baloney and peanut butter sandwiches?
Bowerman: I don't eat baloney. Definitely not. Or Spam! It just isn't right. And don't believe it when they say that chefs can be found in a fast-food drive-through line, ordering the Number Six combo. I would rather eat my food than somebody else's steroid-injected whatever. My favorite local restaurant is Harris', and Vincent's is good. I shop at La Grande Orange, that's where I get a lot of my French ingredients, and I really love the chef at Mary Elaine's. I love to eat at Postino, but it gets kind of very loud there.
NT: Do other kids think you're wacko because you're at home, making beignets?
Bowerman: They get it. Occasionally, when I'm on TV, they'll ask me to bring in what I made because it looked good to them. They appreciate it that I do this; they just think it's neat. I've recruited sous chefs once or twice from kids who think they're interested in cooking. Or I'll be cooking at a home and garden show, and some kid will come up and grate some cheese for me or whatnot.
NT: You're a TV star!
Bowerman: Well, I'm a regular on Good Day Arizona, and I'm on Jan D'Atri's show twice a month. I'm pushing for my own show with the Food Network. I sent them my master reel of all my TV appearances, and I'm still waiting to hear back from them.
NT: Your mom tells me you have attention deficit disorder. Does that get in the way when you're cooking?
Bowerman: Oh, no. Never when I'm cooking. But if I were reading something on, say, racecar driving -- something I'm not interested in at all -- I can't pay attention to it. But if it's a Dean & DeLuca catalogue, I not only can pay attention, but after I'm done I can quote cookware prices from it from memory.
NT: Do you entertain your friends by cooking for them?
Bowerman: I do. Ever since I was a toddler, I've always invited people over for dinner. But kids don't usually have a really refined palate, and it's hard to get them to try things. To get my best friend, Andy Miller, to eat something new is hard. I had to trick him into eating bruschetta by telling him it was like uncooked pizza.
NT: What about when you go to another kid's house for lunch, and his mom serves white bread and lunch meat?
Bowerman: Well, let's just say that if there's a dog under the table, it really makes the situation easier to get through. And if there's a trash can nearby, that's good, too. To make up for it, I'll usually end up offering to make a dessert, which always saves the day.
NT: You give cooking tips to your friends' mothers?
Bowerman: I actually do, all the time. And people call me on the phone to ask my advice about how to prepare things. In cases like that, I suggest a lot of sauces. A good sauce can fix a bad dish very quickly.
NT: Speaking of sauces, why does my hollandaise always curdle?
Bowerman: Are you using a really hot pan?
Bowerman: Well, don't. Do exactly what you're doing, but instead of using a hot pan, use a small sauce pan, and put a metal bowl on top of it -- a.k.a. a double boiler. And always cook with gas, never electric. I've shown up on cooking shows and they'll have electric stovetops, and I just can't do it. (Rolling eyes.) Frankly, I bring my own gas burners with me to some of these shows.
NT: I'm guessing you pack your own school lunches.
Bowerman: Of course. I'd have to get some kind of nuclear decontamination crew to come in and clean up the cafeteria before I would eat there. I wouldn't eat school lunches if you paid me. One of my teachers used to threaten me: "If you don't turn your assignment in on time, I'll make you eat a school luncheon!"
NT: Cafeteria food is gross.
Bowerman: I got the recipes for cafeteria food from the chef's black market, and the ingredients are, well, you don't want to know what they're trying to get kids to eat. Some of the ingredients are things you can't even pronounce. And have you ever read the ingredients on a box of cereal? I read one that had sunscreen in it!
NT: I hear you're passionate about tea.
Bowerman: Every afternoon at four I used to serve high tea. Crumpets, petit fours, the whole thing. I invited everyone I could think of. I had all the tea stuff, then one day my mom took everything and smashed it. She couldn't take another tea party. She took all my tea things and put them in a Hefty bag and put them in the Dumpster.
NT: That's horrible!
Bowerman: Well, the good part is that she felt so bad that three days later I got all new tea stuff plus a new computer! And a new All-Clad pan. So it was worth it.
NT: Why'd she freak out?
Bowerman: It was PMS! But also I had recently set the kitchen on fire making bananas Foster.
NT: That's pretty bad.
Bowerman: Ever since then, I keep a lot of fire extinguishers stashed around the kitchen. I stash fire extinguishers like alcoholics stash their booze.
NT: Probably you ask your parents for pots and pans at Christmas?
Bowerman: Last year I got a solid maple butcher block. I don't ask for pots and pans because I am sponsored by All-Clad, and so I get all my cookware for free. Which is really great because they're like $400 for a single roasting pan. The All-Clad people saw me on TV and they called and said, "Chef Rio, would you be our Arizona spokesperson?" All I have to do is use their pans, and I always mention them on air because I'm so passionate about All-Clad. Their French roaster is wonderful! I use the best cutlery, too. It's a huge difference. Do you have a good set of knives?
NT: No. I only chop with dull knives. I'm afraid of sharp things.
Bowerman: I have to mock you on this one. There was a study and nine out of 10 people got cut using a dull knife. You really need good cutlery. (Hands me a catalogue.) Here, look at this bread knife. You need a good bread knife like this one.
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NT: It costs $70! You could go to Target and buy a whole set of knives for 10 bucks!
Bowerman: (Rolling eyes, sighing.) No. You can't. It's just not the same thing.
NT: So. You're a gourmet chef, but have you ever had the fever for the flavor of new Pringles?
Bowerman: I prefer Kettle Chips. Or Cooke's Brothers Salt and Vinegar Chips. Otherwise I'm not too big on snack foods. I prefer appetizers. And I love a good sorbet. I absolutely love making herb sorbet, like sage sorbet or basil sorbet. I just tricked Andy into trying some by telling him it was mint ice cream. And he absolutely loved it. I don't like to trick people into eating gourmet stuff, but sometimes you have to. It's worth a shot to expand people's idea of what really good food tastes like.