My 6-year-old son Laszlo won’t watch any filmed entertainment other than old Hollywood musicals for fear it might be scary. We even have to turn the musicals off before any rumbles or escalating tensions between farmers and ranchers. Laszlo does this, I believe, to make an incisive sociological point about what happens when you name your kid Laszlo.
Although I’m enjoying my education in the Vincente Minnelli catalog, I was relieved when Laszlo became obsessed with MasterChef Junior, Fox’s cooking show with 8-to-13-year-old competitors. Watching kids no taller than he is cook beef-cheek ravioli and Kaffir-lime panna cotta empowered him to turn on our stove, cook omelettes and chop vegetables with large knives. It was not only impressive but also adorable when accompanied by the original 1977 Broadway recording of “It’s the Hard-Knock Life.”
Unfortunately, in addition to emulating the kid chefs, he copied the judges. At dinner, he would dismiss my “plating,” rearranging the potatoes and broccoli along the rim in an alternating pattern. Noticing that his salmon was slightly undercooked, he grimaced, shook his head slowly and, just like judge Gordon Ramsay, said, “What a shame.” This is a human being who eats salmon with his hands. Also rice.
To refocus Laszlo on the cooking part and away from the judging part, I arranged for him to get a cooking lesson from Kya Lau, now 9, who was the youngest contestant and winner of the first Mystery Box Challenge in the new season of MasterChef. When I told Laszlo, he got very concerned. “It’s hard meeting a very famous person,” he said. I explained that he’s met people more famous than Kya. “Really? Who?” he asked. I cleared my throat, shrugged, looked up at the ceiling and, eventually, just pointed at myself. “Who?” he asked again. I told him that Ben’s mom Gillian Vigman is an actor, which seemed to satisfy him. We’re never playdating with Ben again.
We got to the Laus’ beautiful home after school on Friday. Kya, her parents and her brother moved here from Hong Kong a few years ago, and they love it. In fact, they love everything. In addition to cooking for her family once a week, Kya, who speaks two languages, plays the theremin and piano, does kung fu, is in a Girl Scout troop, and plays basketball and soccer. For her parents’ anniversary, she made them a three-course meal from The French Laundry Cookbook. Laszlo enjoys pretending he’s a taxi driver who is also a dog.
Kya taught Laszlo a recipe she created: lobster avocado and salmon roe tower with truffle-tamale mayonnaise and edible flowers. She made the mayo from scratch, using the mixer she begged her parents to buy her. I wasn’t convinced she was a child until she spent quite a while with the live lobster deciding what to name it, eventually landing on “Laffy Taffy.” Then she plunged a knife between its tail shells, killing it with the method she learned from watching British chef Marco Pierre White.
Kya taught herself to cook by secretly watching cooking videos on her iPad when she was supposed to be sleeping. Which means that as she was teaching Laszlo, she’d say TV-chef things like “We’re going to add all that beautiful juice from the truffles because it has all that flavor. Nothing is going to waste in my kitchen.” All of her knife cuts were perfect, her pieces of lobster restaurant-quality-even. It took three hours to make the appetizer. And that wasn’t because of the fact that her main tools were a pink Hello Kitty spatula and kids’ plastic spoons.
I’d always assumed that MasterChef Junior was faked, perhaps by having pros teach the kids how to make the dishes backstage. Now I know there are fake children. Kya was patient and encouraging with Laszlo; when her parents gave her suggestions, she listened and said thank you. Her 6-year-old brother Dylan also likes to cook, especially duck à l’orange and beef Wellington. They both hugged us and begged us not to go home when it was over. Their parents insisted on opening a 1998 Château d’Yquem to go with the appetizer. I am absolutely certain they are Soviet spies.
When we left, I guiltily felt a little disappointed in my taxi-driver-dog child. Then I realized that not everyone finds his obsession before puberty. And that, unlike the Laus, I haven’t obsessed about perfecting my parenting.
At home, Laszlo told me the main thing he learned from the experience is that “you should be plating better. I feel that more now.” Also that he was “super-glad” we went to the Laus. “She was so sweet,” he said. “Most people aren’t that sweet. Most people just kick you in the penis.” Of course, Laszlo’s special skill would be telling penis jokes.
This appears in the November 23, 2015 issue of TIME.