Inn valuable: 8-year-old gets firsthand taste of hospitality biz
Updated 2:52 pm, Saturday, February 25, 2012
By Meg Barone
With a name like Bernstein, people might assume a young Westport boy might have a musical heritage and would be more comfortable with a conductor's wand or violin bow in his hand.
Harrison Bernstein, 8, prefers a whisk, spatula and paring knife.
Harrison, who has cooked and baked since he was 4 years old, takes his interest so seriously that he has his own website -- www.HarrisonsKitchen.com -- where he posts recipes, writes a food blog, offers video how-to napkin-folding lessons, and sells cookbooks and related items through Amazon.com. Proceeds go to Save the Children, an international organization based in Westport.
After learning about Harrison's aspirations to become a professional chef and hotelier, the management of the Westport Inn decided to indulge his dream and invited him to spend a day there Thursday during a school vacation. They even gave Harrison his own chef's coat, embroidered on it his first name and underneath it the word apprentice.
Natalie Calabrese, sales and reservations coordinator, took him on a tour of the facility. He learned to make a bed. Front Desk Supervisor Antonella Colagiovanni showed him how to register and check out a guest. He attended a staff meeting and cooked in the large commercial kitchen.
"We did a lot of the behind-the-scenes things," said Yolande Lacan, the general manager and chef, who told Harrison the hotel business is about customer service and may require staff and management to wear many hats.
His favorite part? "This is it," said Harrison, standing in the kitchen where he helped Lacan prepare three dishes for the lunch that was served to some of the inn's managers, his father Jayson Bernstein, and a representative from Save the Children.
Lacan taught him to season salmon and chicken with herbs, instructed him in the proper knife technique to cut vegetables safely, and also showed the boy how to whisk ingredients as they made a vinaigrette.
"Keep mixing. I want to see some elbow grease," Lacan told Harrison.
Harrison's enthusiasm was evident throughout the day. "I love to cook and I love hotels. I like their atmosphere and how they look," he said, adding that on a recent family vacation to the Dominican Republic he found more interest in the house where they stayed than in the tropical surroundings.
"I took a napkin-folding class with the house manager," said Harrison, who helped to fold the napkins at the lunch table into decorative shapes.
"Now, we only use cloth napkins at home. No matter how simple the meal we have cloth napkins. We have more cloth napkins to wash than socks," joked Jayson Bernstein, who helps Harrison with the website. Harrison credits his brother Justin, 10, with proof-reading his material before he posts it, and his mother Susan with some of his inspiration.
"My mom cooks a lot," said Harrison, whose favorite recipe is for an Italian-style sauteed chicken.
As they gathered for lunch, Lacan toasted Harrison telling him, "Welcome to the hotel family and much success." Lacan opened two bottles of champagne using a saber but told Harrison she would not teach him that trick until he was a bit older. The adults drank the champagne. Harrison imbibed sparkling apple and pear juice.
At the conclusion of the meal, which was topped off with chocolate chip cookies Harrison made, Lacan informed him he had earned a "salary" for the four hours he worked. "Your wage as an apprentice is $10 an hour," she said, paying Harrison $40 in cash, which he immediately gave to Jason Chmura, manager of community and volunteer engagement for Save the Children.
Harrison had already presented Chmura with a check for $232.28 from the proceeds of his website sales. Jayson Bernstein said his son's website has received about 1,200 hits in the last month and generated about $3,000 in sales from which he got the portion that went to Save the Children.
During the meal, Chmura told Harrison and his father about a Save the Children initiative in rural parts of America to provide healthy lunches to low-income children and teach parents healthy cooking practices and how to access healthy foods. It's an effort to focus on healthy eating and combatting childhood obesity, Chmura said.
Chmura said perhaps Harrison's donation will be earmarked for that program since his passion is food.
Chmura was grateful to Harrison for his generosity and concern for other children. "It's not always about the money. It's about seeing the inspiration and creativity of kids (like Harrison). He has a view outside of his community; he has a global perspective, which is important. It's not always something you learn in school," he said.