Children now have enough and more on their plate. They slice, stir fry and bake to rustle up dishes. Shonali Muthalaly meets the little chefs

Know any kids with knives? A profusion of them run amok at The Park. One tiny thing even wields her very own heavy-duty meat tenderiser.

Scalding stoves. Sizzling deep fat fryers. Countless sharp objects. I enter the competition hall gingerly. Chaos seems inevitable at the L'il Mean Chefs challenge, pitting eight mini chefs against each other.

Eight-year-old Adam Libby is languidly surveying his work table. “I'm done,” he smiles. Pointing out three fish fillets sitting pretty in a saucepan, he adds, “I'll fry that just in time for the judging.” He waves airily at two bowls, “Those are my mashed potatoes and roasted peppers,” then opens a saucepan and peers in thoughtfully at the creamy white sauce studded with mushrooms. “And this just needs to be re-heated.”

So much for reality television-style drama. With one hour to go, most of the children have finished cooking and are now alternating between socialising and adjusting their displays. “They're really organised,” says a passing chef. He adds, “One of the kids finished his entire dish, looked at the time and shrugged, ‘Oh, I can make it better'. Then he started all over again.” Meanwhile, Adam's thoughtfully surveying his menu. “I'll add a salad,” he yells, running to the central ingredient display, grabbing cucumbers and tomatoes. I hold my breath as he chops. Needlessly. He's got confidence of a mafia lord.

Aged between eight and 13, these kids have been chosen from 75 applicants for the Park's Lil Mean Chefs Challenge. Chef Rajesh Radhakrishnan, director of food production at The Park, says they have two hours to cook a meal featuring three components: main course, starch and vegetable. He adds, “They're amazing,” he says, describing how efficiently the children worked, choosing their central protein — from prawn, chicken, fish or paneer — and then creating a menu based on the available ingredients.

Each contestant has his or her own work station, with a table and stove. In the centre there's a dramatic display of ingredients they can choose from: bowls of wasabi, pine nuts and sweet corn. Baskets of baby brinjal, potatoes and onions. Pots of cumin, turmeric and coriander. Blocks of feta, cheddar and blue cheese.

Although Chef Rajesh's team is on hand to give advice, the kids do everything themselves, from cooking to presentation. Parents can't help. Not that the kids look like they need any. In fact they seem slightly embarrassed by their excited camera toting, whooping, whistling cheering squads. “My daughter asked me to sit down and stop shouting,” murmurs a reprimanded mother. Another little chef whispers “Mama tried helping me. But she doesn't know how to cook.”

There's a commotion at the ingredient station as one of the kids yells, “Chef, chef. Which one is parsley,” as he frantically rustles through pots of herbs. Meanwhile, Fatima Abdul Gani beatifically stirs her creamy chicken stroganoff, filling the air with its buttery fragrance. “My speciality is chilli chicken, but there was no soy sauce,” she says, adding that she makes a pretty good stroganoff too. “I specialise in Italian and Chinese food,” she states, setting out her side dishes, an egg fried rice and vegetable salad. Opposite her, 10-year-old Zahrah Vahanvaty is plating her prawns in Singapore chilli sauce served with stir-fried vegetable, butter rice. “Mamma. It looks awesome,” she yells. “Good,” says her mother, adding carefully, “Let's hope it tastes awesome.”

A panel that includes Chef Radhakrishanan and Lemuel Herbert, associate vice president and area general manager of The Park tastes each dish before declaring 13-year-old Roshan Raj the winner, for his stuffed chicken schnitzel. Fatima comes second with her stroganoff.

Featuring chicken roulade, aubergine stuffed potatoes, steaks and basil rice, the competition is fierce. However, what stands out is how thoroughly the young chefs enjoy the very process of cooking, instead of worrying about impressing the judges. Eight-year-old Jeshee Adline Teryl, who takes a break from sautéing the vegetables she's planning to serve with roast chicken says this is much more fun than cooking at home. Because of the equipment? The professional help? The company? “Well, yes,” she nods, leaning on the low table she's working on. But mostly because, “here, I can reach the pan without a stool.”

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Shonali MuthalalyMay 11, 2012