Developing a discerning palate

Published 4:58 pm Saturday, March 7, 2009

One of Helena’s possibly most discriminating young palates belongs to John Perko, a Helena Middle School eighth grader.

John routinely reads Cuisine at Home, Saveur and Bon Appetit, then marks the recipes he wants his mother, Mary Perko, to execute.

“I like to challenge her,” he said with a grin.

Growing up an only child in a lineage where both the men and women are avid cooks, bakers and food aficionados, John recalls early childhood beach vacations and an immense kettle of bouillabaisse prepared by his grandfather.

John often accompanied his grandfather on trips to nearby Joe Patti’s, a Pensacola institution that opened in 1935 and is still known today for its fresh seafood. While his grandfather shopped for mussels and fresh fish, John and his cousins would be in the Italian section sampling the olive oils on chunks of bread. His grandfather was amazed to see John slurping down oysters at the tender age of four.

John cites his earliest memorable restaurant experience as Nick’s Fish Market in Chicago. When he was a bit older, he approved of the Oceanaire in Minneapolis –– a 5–star restaurant known for its fresh fish. There he determined, however, the potatoes au gratin tasted as though they were pre-packaged and not up to snuff.

John’s mother and aunt testify he has never been a fan of boxed mac and cheese. He will consent to an Italian stuffed cheese sandwich with gorgonzola and pesto and notes brie and Boursin as his favorite cheeses.

When asked what he would request at his final supper, John’s answer is Saltimbocca—Cornish game hens stuffed with sage and prosciutto, a two-hour delicacy prepared by his mother on special occasions. When I inquired as to his participation in the prep, he said, “I tell Mom, you make it better. I don’t want to mess it up.”

He does, however, wield the torch to caramelize the sugar on the top of his favorite dessert, crme brulee.

Does he look for a place in the future Top Chef critic lineup? Perhaps. Meanwhile, John locally recommends the Scallopine with shitake mushrooms and the crab cakes at Fox Valley and at Firebird’s, the Java Ribs with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes & coleslaw.