He’s at home in the kitchen

Fourteen-year-old Spencer Coplan is already an award-winning chef.

The head chef, dressed in kitchen whites, dips a spoon into a saucepan to taste and evaluate the flavor.

It’s a scene that plays out in a hundred Puget Sound restaurants every day. But this taste test is unique because the chef is West Sound Academy eighth grader Spencer Coplan – already such an accomplished culinary artist at age 14, that the young islander’s original recipe took first place in a national contest last month.

For the recipe that was honored by Johnson and Wales University’s culinary program, Coplan looked to his Jewish heritage, adding phyllo dough and mango chutney – representing ingredients used by Jews in Greece and in Spain, respectively – to a traditional dish of bulgur wheat and lentils.

“I never knew there were so many Jewish recipes,” Coplan said. “Historically, Jewish culture has spread throughout the world.”

Coplan served his fare to 17 dinner guests last Saturday, after shopping and prepping the meal over several days with Matt and Chris Mickle, twins who are Coplan’s classmates at the academy.

Coplan’s culinary skills, auctioned off to raise money for Voyager Montessori Elementary School, were won by Deb DeVlieger and Ed Berschinski, who chose a Thai meal including shrimp satay, veggie lemon grass soup and cashew chicken, over Peruvian, Italian or French cuisine.

“I just have to say that Spencer is amazing, and so was the dinner,” DeVlieger said. “Every single course of the dinner was exceptional. And he spent hours on the phone to make sure the menu was right. He even did follow up, to ask me how it was.”

The youth came to cooking through a family illness. While his mother was attending to his dying grandmother, Coplan was left to forage for his own dinners.

“I’d ask my dad and he’d say, ‘I’m too tired to cook,’” Coplan said. “Our meal was take-out or cereal. So one day I asked my dad, ‘can I cook?’ and he said ‘sure.’”

So the then-11-year-old pulled out a kid’s cookbook and made macaroni and cheese from scratch. The family liked the meal, so Coplan followed his debut, a week later, with homemade spaghetti sauce and pasta.

On a subsequent visit to a bookstore, he wandered, fortuitously, into the aisle featuring cookbooks, and left with a copy of “Betty Crocker’s Cooking Basics.”

“So I was reading and started cooking from it,” Coplan said. “My aunt reinforced (that interest) by sending cookbooks and tapes from Cooking Network. So it grew from there.”

Coplan’s aunt, Mary Tohlmann, sent kitchen equipment and through West Sound Academy he enrolled in Indianola caterer Judith Weinstock’s culinary arts courses. After a studying at Blue Ribbon Cooking School in Madison Park last summer, Coplan was voted “Most Likely to Actually Become a Chef” by classmates.

Coplan’s attraction to the kitchen flourished in the context in a family where both parents cook recreationally. He can recall watching cooking shows on TV with his father when he was small.

“My parents love to cook, and cook every day,” he said.

His father favors ethnic cuisine like Sichuan and Greek, while his mother gravitates to foods from her native Texas – or whatever happens to be in season.

While Coplan doesn’t think his cooking is unusual, his interest in cutlery at kitchen supply stores has occasionally raised eyebrows among salespeople who don’t believe that a teen boy’s interest in knives is necessarily related to food.

Elizabeth Coplan recalls one such encounter in a Seattle outlet, which turned to a store-wide conversation.

The saleswoman was cautious in her approach to Spencer and his friends, Elizabeth said, until “Spencer asked a question where he clearly knows what he’s talking about and she comes alive, and pretty soon the whole store is talking to these teen boys, what kind of food they like to cook, what kind of restaurants they like to go to. It was so great.”

For Coplan, the world is full of good food. But if he had to pick just one meal to cook, it would be French cuisine; if he had to select a single meal to eat, he’d have caesar salad, chocolate mousse and “my dad’s fried rice.”

Coplan’s award for the Johnson and Wales University’s Second Annual National Middle School Healthy Heritage Recipe included kitchen gear and cooking supplies, and a visit from chef Jorge de la Torre, a professor who cooked with Coplan and 10 other WSA students – and also a scholarship to attend the J&W culinary program.

The scholarship is a prize that Coplan, who wants to become a professional chef, says he will use.

“To me,” he said, “cooking is an art, it’s a pastime and it’s just plain fun.”

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