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3-Course Interview: Eliana de las Casas 

The teenage chef talks about interning with Tory McPhail at Commander’s Palace

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Eliana de las Casas has spent more time in the kitchen than most kids her age. At 15, the Kenner native and student at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) has written three cookbooks — her most recent, Cool Kids Cook: Fresh & Fit, was published in 2014 — and she hosts a weekly online radio show in which she interviews chefs and culinary industry personalities. While on summer break, she interned for a month at Commander's Palace under executive chef Tory McPhail, her first restaurant kitchen gig. She spoke with Gambit about what she learned at the restaurant and what it's like being a kid in the kitchen.

What was it like to cook in a restaurant kitchen for the first time?

De Las Casas: It's been so much fun here. It's given me a really different perspective, being in an actual restaurant kitchen. I get to see behind the scenes and see what really goes on. I've learned a lot here — I didn't know too much about being in an actual kitchen — I've always just been doing it from home and at NOCCA.

  I guess I never noticed how much quantity there is; there's so much of everything. I'm used to cooking for four people and here, it's cooking for so many (people).

  I worked the weekends and Mondays and Tuesdays. I chopped a lot of vegetables for different soups and different dishes; we peel lots of shrimp, stuff like that. I'll help out with some of the different meals. Yesterday, I learned how to make the turtle soup, so that was pretty fun. It seems like it would be (hard to make), but then when you start putting it together it's actually pretty easy.

How has your experience at NOCCA been so far?

C: I've been cooking since I was 4 years old. I've always loved being in the kitchen; I never wanted to leave.

  So I was so excited when I first found out there was an actual school that has a culinary arts program. [At] most other schools, it's just home (economics) and baking cookies ... but NOCCA: there's a commercial kitchen — and we just got a new kitchen this past year.

  I get to be around other people my age that love the same thing I do. My other friends, they're just like, "No, I'm not gonna cook. But you can cook for me." So it's really nice to be able to have conversations about food without someone being like, "What? What is that?"

  I'm going to be a sophomore this year. ... I'm still not sure what culinary school I want to [attend] — there are just so many great schools out there. I like being in the kitchen, but I'm not sure if I want to work in the kitchen (in the future). I want to have my own line of spices — I've created maybe a dozen spice blends. I want to keep writing cookbooks and also have a line of cookware and chef wear for kids.

What's your favorite thing to cook? Favorite ingredient?

C: It's really hard because I love to cook all things, but I really like to do fusion — I'm in the middle somewhere [between] gourmet and comfort food. I like to do a lot of family-style (food) too.

  I used to not really be that big of a baker. I didn't do much with dessert except for eat it. Being at NOCCA has really expanded my knowledge of baking, so that's been really great. I now know how to do more cakes, and I learned how to make bagels and pretzels, which was really cool.

  I love salt. I think I have this really weird obsession with salt. But just salt on a dish can make it so much better and bring out the natural flavors. I have maybe, like, 15 different kinds of salts at home.

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