From an early age, Bobby Dandliker’s place is in kitchen – The Boston Globe

SOMERVILLE — Bobby Dandliker is not your average high school freshman. For starters, he’s worked at Craigie on Main (he begged owner Tony Maws for a job when he was 12), and tonight, he’s cooking at his own pop-up at Cuisine en Locale and Maws is one of the guests.

The idea might frighten a novice cook, but with his deep voice and imposing 6-foot-plus stature, the curly-haired Dandliker, 15, is more confident than his age would suggest. The Chicago native moved to Newton with his family four years ago, but his love affair with food began early. “Really, 5 or 6 years old was when I knew that this what I want to do with my life,” he says.

Continue reading below

His menu is six courses ($85 a person, with a $35 optional wine pairing) and features dishes from pate to handmade gnocchi. The finale is a play on s’mores, complete with homemade toasted marshmallow fluff. Twenty guests sit at one long table and besides Maws, they include Dandliker’s parents, Peter and Linda, and one of his Newton South classmates. In the kitchen, the teen cook is helped by Craigie veterans Carl Dooley and Brian Krieger. “We always joked that Bobby would be our boss one day,” Krieger says.

The menu is simple but sophisticated, and Dandliker explains it is meant to mark the transition between when “we want heavy flavors — cassoulets, braises — to light spring, [when] we want vegetables, we want salads.” He achieves this in juxtaposing dishes like pate and lamb with his “from the garden” creation, which highlights early spring vegetables.

The first course is kampachi, a farmed fish from Japan, paired with avocado, lime, grapefruit, radish, and jalapenos. This is followed by pate de campagne, made with pork shoulder, armagnac, and spices, adorned with pickled rhubarb and mustard seeds, served with aioli-slathered croutes. The third course is the garden plate about which Dandliker is most excited: a seared scallop surrounded by peas and mushrooms to evoke spring. The next two courses are gnocchi with duck, then rosy roast lamb loin with parsnips prepared two ways, along with broccoli, and morels. The meal finishes with s’mores, and guests are given a bag of chocolate cookies for the ride home, in the unlikely chance they need a snack.

Somerville, MA -- 04/26/15 -- Teen chef Bobby Dandliker plates the Pate de Campagne, part of his six-course pop-up dinner, "ONCE with Bobby Dandliker", at Cuisine en Locale on April 26, 2015, in Somerville, Massachusetts. (Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe)

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

Pate de campagne with aioli-slathered croutes was among the dishes prepared.

Dandliker, who goes to Newton South High School, went to Craigie when he moved to Boston, and was taken with the place. “I was really touched by the food,” he says, “and they have an open kitchen, which was really intriguing to me.” He decided he wanted to work there, so he e-mailed the restaurant and called the hostess, insisting on an interview with Maws. His relentless efforts paid off when the chef agreed. “I tried to scare him out of it,” Maws writes in an e-mail, “but he wouldn’t go away.”

Maws could tell Dandliker was serious and gave him a shot. What started as a gig shelling peas and peeling vegetables eventually turned into a spot on the weekend brunch line. Maws credits this progression to Dandliker’s work ethic and talent. “He has very little ego,” Maws writes. “He just wants to learn.” His protege currently works brunch at Maws’s other restaurant, The Kirkland Tap & Trotter in Somerville.

When Dandliker’s boss arrives and walks by the open kitchen door, Maws calls in, “Can you tell him to put a hat on?” He is referring to Dandliker’s uncovered mane — something that never happens in a professional kitchen. But the young chef has decided not to cover his locks. “I usually put it back when I work but I am just trying to have fun tonight,” he says.

His route to this dinner came earlier this year, while helping a friend who was doing a pop-up at Cuisine en Locale. Dandliker met the space’s proprietor, JJ Gonson, and before the night ended, Gonson had arranged for him to have his own pop-up at the tail end of his April vacation. Called One Night Culinary Experience, or ONCE, the events are always “a one-time experience,” explains Gonson. She beams with pride for the young chef, whom she barely knows; she never worried about his age. “I knew he had a lot of good people around him,” she says, and considers him “capable and confident and enthusiastic.”

Somerville, MA -- 04/26/15 -- The final From the Garden dish, part of a six-course pop-up dinner created by teen chef Bobby Dandliker, at Cuisine en Locale on April 26, 2015, in Somerville, Massachusetts. (Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe)

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

A garden plate featuring a seared scallop surrounded by peas and mushrooms was also among the dishes.

And on the night of his ONCE, Dandliker seems to exemplify all that, looking experienced and taking advantage of his chance to show people what he can do. His team helps plate dishes and guide the flow of service. Says Krieger, “He’s everything you want to see in a young cook.”

When Dooley met Dandliker two years ago at Craigie, his immediate reaction was, “Who is that giant 14-year-old working brunch?” But he was won over. “He has a level of maturity hard to find among most cooks, not just a 14-year-old,” he says. For this dinner, both Dooley and Krieger let the young cook take charge, looking to him for direction.

Even with his many mentors, Dandliker’s biggest supporters are his parents, both chemists. Explaining that their only child took the initiative to get himself into a celebrated kitchen, Peter says, “He has the drive and the follow-through.” Adds Linda, “He is always thinking about food.” They keep the balance between life in and out of the kitchen for their son, who wants to go to college (preferably Cornell) before he opens his own restaurant.

“The kitchen is very romantic to me,” he says. “I can’t tell you why, I can’t tell anybody why. I’ve just always loved it. I love food. I love being around food. It makes me happy.

“And it makes me happy to make people happy.”

Bethany Graber can be reached at [email protected]