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Cookin’ it up!

Tales of a Teaneck kitchen prodigy

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Eitan Bernath was a contestant on “Chopped.” The episode will air at the end of the month. Courtesy of the Food Network

How did 12-year-old Eitan Bernath of Teaneck come to be on the Food Network’s popular cooking show “Chopped”?

“He’s always been curious and he likes science,” said his mother, Sabrina Bernath. “He thinks it’s cool to mix flavors and watch things rise. He also likes to make people happy,” she added, pointing out that he had just brought his friends a freshly baked batch of cinnabuns.

For Eitan, a student at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, cooking is more than just a hobby. Struggling for the right word, the fledgling chef – whose website, cookwithchefeitan.com, will launch this week – described his relationship with the culinary arts as a “passion.”

“It is a hobby, but it’s also my life, my passion,” he said, noting that while his generally supportive family “doesn’t let me cook for a big thing like a wedding, they let me cook most of the time” and rally to get the ingredients he needs.

Once in the kitchen, Eitan likes to be the “executive chef.” That does not always please his mother, who also loves to cook. “He takes over,” she said. “He wants full control of the kitchen.”

But at least, she said, he’s gotten significantly better at cleaning up after himself.

She noted that Eitan’s 9-year-old brother, Yoni, has absolutely no interest in cooking, while her husband, Jason, cooks, “but not extensively. He makes Hungarian goulash, a nice change from cholent.” He also makes hamantaschen, both regular and gluten-free, and has mastered the Chinese stir fry.

“Cooking is a lot of fun,” Eitan said. “It’s never-ending. You can always make something new – even if it’s just making a simple pb&j sandwich, or homemade cheese.” (Yes, he makes his own cheese, Indian paneer.) And, he said, his friends love to eat what he makes. While one of them shares his interest in cooking, “the others mostly just like to eat.”

Cooking, Sabrina Bernath said, is Eitan’s “main thing. He’s obsessed with the Food Network and the Cooking Channel. It consumes his summers and his weekends. He’s got a blog and a Twitter account for his followers. He also likes to do fun and crazy things to meet famous chefs. They’re like rock stars.”

For example, she said, when a local bookstore hosted chef Guy Fieri, “Eitan went to the book-signing dressed in the Guy Fieri costume he used for Purim. He’s his idol. When [Fieri] saw him, he stopped the signing. Eitan had written him a long letter and he let him read it. He kept hugging him. The book publisher was there and he took photos.”

“I like Guy Fieri because he’s very energetic,” Eitan said. “He’s always positive, happy, excited, enthusiastic, and fun to watch.”

At the book-signing, “I wore a costume, wig, goatee, and everything. When he saw me, he freaked out and gave me his glasses and told the audience I’d be signing the rest of the books.”

Despite these brushes with fame, Eitan does not neglect his studies.

“He’s in honors classes,” his mother said. “He gets his work done.” She did note, however, that filming “Chopped” caused him to miss several days of school. “It’s incredible how much time goes into making a one-hour show,” she said.

“I’m pretty good at knowing if I have too much homework and won’t have time to cook a particular dish,” Eitan said. “I say, ‘Can I do this and still do my homework?’ “

According to his mother, he is not only creative but has the drive to stick to a project until it is completed. He has “a kind of fearless quality.

“He’s learning to make kosher bacon,” she said. “He walked up to the butcher to request a certain cut of meat to cure and salt. When he was 6 or 7, he insisted on making lemonade and cookies from scratch for his lemonade stand.”

“I love to make everything from scratch,” Eitan said. “My motto is, ‘If you can make it at home, make it!’ When you make things from scratch, they taste much better, and you get the excitement of knowing you made something that most people have to buy.”

Sabrina Bernath said that “a friend of a friend of a friend” – remembering that Eitan likes to cook – sent her an email about an open casting call at the Food Network. Following this up by looking at the station’s website, Ms. Bernath saw that anyone could enter. “As a joke, we filled out an application,” she said. “It was in December. By January, he had already done several phone interviews and was asked to come in for a camera interview, and then more phone interviews.”

Six weeks later, “we got an email saying that he was selected. The taping was in early April. We can only tell people now, since the show airs on September 30.

“This was the first-ever children’s episode, for kids in fifth and sixth grades,” she said. “They broke every rule. The chefs are usually kept in a small room and don’t see the pantry or set” before taping. The kids, on the other hand, were invited to a Chelsea market the day before, saw the pantry, and met the producers and directors. Also, while chefs usually can’t have guests present, the children were allowed to have their entire families there to support them.

“They did everything they could,” Ms. Bernath said. “They even had a paramedic who specializes in children. They provided us with a room and lunch, and there was a producer whose sole job was to keep us calm and happy. The kids were using real knives and ovens.”

That didn’t faze Eitan.

“The utensils and equipment were easy to use,” he said. “They explained everything about the equipment.”

Another problem – how to cook using non-kosher ingredients – also proved not to be a problem.

“He watched a ton of videos on how to cook foods not in our house,” his mother said. “He spoke with Rabbi Knapp” – Yavneh’s principal – “about what was and was not halachically allowed. He told Eitan he could cook the meat, but he couldn’t cook meat and dairy together.”

Fortunately, Eitan was not placed in that position.

“The meat wasn’t kosher, but they didn’t put cream in the basket,” Ms. Bernath said. “And he wore his kippah.”

Eitan said taping the “Chopped” episode was “the coolest thing I’ve done in life. It was an incredible experience. There was a lot of filming and a lot of fun. I thought it would be just cooking and showing it to the judges. But there was a lot of joking around.”

“It was the absolute highlight of his first 12 years of life,” echoed his mother. “I can’t imagine it will ever dim. It was a huge learning experience. He feels he accomplished a major life goal already.”

Still, she added, he has a million more.

For example, “he wants to open two restaurants – one a burger bar, a really fun place for families. He’ll also open up a dessert bar, a new concept, serving high-end desserts through to candy to ice-cream.

“He would love to continue being in the public eye and educating people about food.”

In the meantime, food lovers can go to Eitan’s website or enjoy his food pictures on instagram, @chefeitanbernath; Twitter @chefeitanb; and Facebook, @chefeitanbernath.

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