Cookery? Teen chef Sam Stern shows students it's hardly rocket science. Geraldine Brennan gets a taste of his inspiration
Nigella uses too many adjectives and Delia is too bossy, but Jamie is cool.
Sam Stern's number one foodie hero, however, is big brother Tom, now a junior doctor, who showed him how to cook his first steak. His earliest food memory is of his mum Susan making his favourite treacle bread.
He graduated from watching to helping and made his own batch at around six years old ("I know I still had to stand on a chair"). At eight, he cooked roast chicken followed by chocolate mousse for the family (he's the youngest of four), without Susan standing over him. "By then I knew I could trust him not to hurt himself," she says.
The Sterns like to eat (they all cook except father Jeffrey, an antiquarian book dealer when he's not washing up). It was left to Sam, the last child left at home, to write down their favourite meals. "Tom still texts me asking for recipes."
His cookbook, published this month, is intended to show other hungry teenagers and students that feeding yourself is not rocket science and need not be time-consuming. As well as Susan's bread, there's chicken soup from Jeffrey's mum and sponge cake from Susan's mum. There are cheap and cheerful basics such as porridge, coleslaw, cauliflower cheese, pasta sauces as well as hand-holding through more ambitious offerings: moussaka, Herby Roast Lamb, curries, moules marinieres and My Mate Tom's Amaretti Surprise (a hot souffle with raspberry sauce).
Sam was 14 when Cooking Up a Storm was put together. Every afternoon, during the 2004 summer holidays, he had to come straight home from his sports course. "His friends all decided I must be making him do remedial English," says Susan. A farmer's daughter, she also learned to cook at the kitchen table. "I did O-level cookery. I had a wonderful teacher and learned all the basic skills. I made Cornish pasties in the first lesson."
Sam does not study food technology at his independent day school in Yorkshire, where he's juggling 11 GCSEs, eight coursework deadlines and directing a production of The Crucible later this term. Just as well he has written a chapter on what to eat before an exam (try brain-boosting blueberry and raspberry smoothies and smoked salmon for revision - but not all at once - and a calming hot chocolate the night before).
"I've seen my brother and sisters go through A-levels, finals, the lot, ahead of me and try out the best things to eat." He never skips breakfast and, since a holiday in Spain a few years ago, his favourite is fresh tomato bruschetta with lots of garlic.
He doesn't have time to watch TV cooks or much TV at all in term time, although he has visited Jamie Oliver's restaurant, Fifteen, for a day's work experience. Oliver also gave a promotional quote for the book jacket, and Antony Worrall Thompson has recruited Sam for a live show. But he finds time to read teenage fiction such as Malorie Blackman's Noughts Crosses and the new Geraldine McCaughrean novel, The White Darkness. And he may be the only 15-year-old with a subscription to BBC Good Food magazine and a shelf full of grown-up cookbooks.
When I visited him at home earlier this term he had negotiated a half-day off school for the photoshoot for next year's book, Sam Stern's Real Fast Food: dishes that can be on the table in five to 30 minutes. The new book will emphasise shopping skills, for those who think food grows ready-packed in supermarket bags carried by their parents, so Sam had just been photographed at his local street market and deli (he found this embarrassing for the first book, he says, but now he doesn't care) before posing against a brick wall eyeballing a strawberry.
Walker Books' publisher Denise Johnstone-Burt rattles out instructions, "Sam, you need to get your kebabs out of the oven now, and change your top, but not a black one," and Sam obeys like a pro. Within half an hour he's changed his T-shirt again to drain some pasta, then hidden it under a hoodie and crawled into a tent in the back garden. It's 6pm but the photographer, Lorne, makes it look like early morning. Sam and friends Dom and Joe, who were extras in Cooking Up a Storm, are demonstrating camp-site cooking: what you do when you're on your Duke of Edinburgh outdoor challenge, or at Glastonbury when there's a whole-day queue for the falafel stall.
I've been steadily munching through Sam's creations throughout all the activity: lovely chicken liver pate and home-made apple chutney followed by Eton Mess "with a twist" (blueberries). Finally, with another costume change, the boys can eat for real: 20-minute dahl and 30-minute mushroom curry.
So is he destined for TV cook stardom? Sam says: "I don't know if I want to do anything with food later, but I think I'd get bored cooking the same things over and over."
Right now this is what Sam is interested in: making something quick to eat with his mates when he gets home from school or football ("my favourite time for baking is just after school"), before he goes out again.
Cooking Up a Storm by Sam Stern is published by Walker Books, pound;9.99.
We have 15 copies for Friday readers: to enter our draw, send a postcard to the address on page 2 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. uk by November 4 (simply mark the message 'Cookbook offer'). Sam Stern will appear in Antony Worrall Thompson's session at the Festive BBC Good Food Show at London's Olympia on December 2. Tickets and information: 0870 161 2145, or www.festivebbcgoodfoodshow.com