Eleven-year-old Zach Hofen wears a pristine white chef’s coat, an emblem of just how seriously he takes the self-appointed job of making dinner for his family. Brows knitted, he keeps an eye on the panko-breaded chicken breasts while drizzling pinkish-hued juice from the pickled onions over the arugula.
Zach’s mother, Deliece Hofen, serves as sous chef, quietly pushing the dinner plates in front of him. He positions each chicken breast on its plate, mimicking the precise accuracy of a jeweler setting a stone.
Zach is in many ways a typical preteen, defined by activities, hobbies and kid-like pursuits. A sixth-grader at Aubry Bend Middle School in Olathe, he is a worshipper of sushi, orange Fanta sodas, cheeseburgers and the Z-Man sandwich from Joe’s Kansas City.
But unlike his peers, Zach is also the bone marrow donor for 10-year-old brother Braden.
Braden’s seven-year fight against neuroblastoma — a rare type of childhood cancer with a 30 percent chance of survival over five years — and Deliece’s subsequent battle with breast cancer, could easily have overshadowed Zach. But Deliece, a former Blue Valley principal, and her husband, Brian, an electrical engineer, have carefully nurtured both of their sons’ talents and strengths over the years, casting cancer aside whenever possible to focus on life’s joys.
“TAKE THAT cANCER!” is our signature family mantra,” says Deliece, explaining why she always types the phrase in capital letters — with the exception of the initial letter “c” in cancer — when communicating with her social media community, which includes more than 20,000 across Facebook, Twitter @Bradenshope and her blog firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It symbolizes our determination to have hope, always,” she says. “We celebrate victories in this household.”
The Hofens, of Olathe, are hypersensitive to the reality that the spotlight is often on Braden, so when Zach was 8 years old and became glued to Food Network shows such as Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” and the chef competition-style “Chopped,” they encouraged his budding culinary interests.
Zach and Deliece signed up for a cooking class at the Culinary Center of Kansas City, which offers kid-friendly, chef-instructed sessions. Occasionally Deliece even stages her own version of “Chopped” in the Hofen kitchen, following the show’s formula of compiling mystery baskets filled with typical ingredients and one ringer.
“Zach figures out a dish to make from what I provide,” Deliece says.
One of Zach’s memorable creations was a cookie cake he concocted from vanilla pudding mix, milk and bananas. “I thought he would make a banana pudding, but Zach had other ideas,” Deliece recalls.
Zach pauses from ferrying plates of piping-hot chicken Milanese, a recipe created by his favorite Food Network chef Anne Burrell. With his mom’s help, he tweeted Burrell the first time he made it. “I decided to do the cake and then topped it with a puree I made from the pudding and bananas,” he says. “Thumbs up, right, Mom?”
“I like cooking and it’s something I’m relatively good at,” says Zach matter-of-factly the next morning while dipping bread into a French toast batter.
Zach returns his concentration to the sizzling-hot griddle Deliece has readied. “If you’re timid of the things you love and afraid to try them, then your only problem is your inner demons.”
Deliece, hovering behind Zach as he approaches the griddle with the first piece of bread, laughs. “That is what we call a Zach-ism in this house. We have no idea where he comes up with these notions, but they make sense, don’t they?”
“The French call this dish pain perdu,” Zach continues, flipping the browning pieces of eggy toast on the griddle and stirring a fresh blackberry compote, which will replace syrup, that simmers on the stove.
Following a practice run with Deliece earlier in the week, Zach decided to tweak the French toast batter by adding a pinch of dry ginger. “Hopefully, I will rock it,” he says.
Brian joins Deliece and Zach for breakfast this morning; Braden sits at the table but doesn’t partake of his brother’s French toast. “Braden is a very, very picky eater,” Deliece says. “I can count on both hands what he likes.”
But, according to Zach, it’s OK that his brother doesn’t like the food he prepares. “It doesn’t bother me,” says Zach, who makes a simple meal for the family several times a month — dishes such as tostadas and meat-filled wontons.
“Zach would cook every night if he could,” Deliece says, pointing to a pile of cookbooks and food magazines on a nearby shelf. “And Zach picks up tips and files details in his head from the cooking shows. He has an uncanny ability to remember all sorts of things.”
Brian agrees that Zach’s interest in cooking helps set him apart from his brother and his friends. “It’s really nice to have something for Zach to do where he’s not competing and just creating and having fun,” he says.
Zach announces his verdict on the revised French toast recipe. “Yep,” he says, “I think the ginger was a good choice. Don’t you, Mom?”
Deliece flashes the thumbs-up sign to her oldest son, wiping powdered sugar away from the corners of her mouth.
Braden was initially diagnosed in 2007, and the cancer came back in 2009. Devastating news, especially when Deliece and Brian heard three words no parent wants to hear: “No known cure.”
The family began fighting what seemed to be insurmountable odds. Braden started treatments with a team specializing in relapsing neuroblastoma. In January 2011, Braden was declared to be in a second remission.
“Miraculous,” says Deliece, who has become a self-professed “momcologist.” “My new job was as a vigilant advocate. Braden’s Army was born, which today includes thousands across the country, some of whom have children with cancer.”
But in July 2013, Braden’s cancer returned; a secondary cancer caused by the strength of the treatments previously used to save his life. New plans were made, and the bone marrow transplant option was discussed. Zach underwent a battery of tests and was a match.
Last March, the Hofen family boarded a plane for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “I was extremely scared and when I woke up from the surgery the pain was bad,” Zach recalls of the three-week hospital stay.
Although Zach spent a restless day in a wheelchair to regain his strength, his love of food rebounded quickly. “I craved a slice of cheese pizza and a couple of hours later, Dad brought me a piece,” he says. “Nothing says post-surgery like cheese pizza.”
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has a renowned food service program, including a rotating chef’s restaurant in its food court. Celebrity chef and Food Network Iron Chef Jose Garces had a pop-up eatery at the hospital during Zach’s stay.
Garces, whose mother is a cancer survivor, is involved in Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, a pediatric cancer charity started in Connecticut in 2000 by a young cancer patient who died in 2004.
Garces believes food transcends both joyful and sad events in people’s lives. “It’s touching to know we are able to impact youngsters going through a tough time like Zach,” Garces said in a recent phone interview. “And to have someone his age appreciate the food we serve is incredible. Food brings people together on so many levels.”
While Braden was still recovering, Zach had a few food adventures.
“We went to the Franklin Fountain, where I ate half of the Mount Vesuvius, which was on Food Network’s ‘Man vs. Food,’” Zach says. “It was an enormous sundae, with brownies, ice cream and chocolate sauce that ran down the side like lava.”
He and Deliece visited Philadelphia’s White Dog Café, where the server declared Zach’s palate as “very flavorful for someone so young.”
“That was cool,” Zach says.
Since the surgery, Braden has had more victories than setbacks, and Zach continues to hone his culinary skills.
“Who knows what I will make next,” Zach says. “But it’ll be an adventure.”
To which Deliece, always in the background, flashes a big thumbs-up.
Kimberly Winter Stern is an Overland Park-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Chow Town. Reach her at email@example.com or @kimdishes.
Zach’s French Toast With Blackberry Compote
Makes 3 servings, two slices each
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
6 slices Texas-style toast bread
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pint blackberries, rinsed
1/4 teaspoon ginger
6 mint leaves, for garnish
Powdered sugar, for dusting
To make the French toast: Preheat a large griddle pan to medium-high heat. In a shallow dish, mix together eggs and the milk with a fork until eggs are broken up and incorporated into the liquid. Add the vanilla extract. Sprinkle the cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger on top of the milk/egg mixture and stir to combine. Spray the preheated griddle pan with nonstick spray. Using tongs, dip the bread into the mixture until submerged and evenly coated. Flip over and get the other side of the bread well-coated. Place bread on the griddle and repeat for each slice until 6 slices are on the griddle. Once the toast is golden, use a spatula to flip the bread and let it brown on the other side.
To make the blackberry compote: Melt butter in a small saucepan on medium-low heat and then add blackberries. Turn heat to low. Simmer until blackberries soften and then add the ginger. Stir carefully as blackberries break apart very easily.
To serve: Put two small mint leaves on the corner of a plate with one blackberry in the center. Place two pieces of French toast on each plate, top with blackberry compote and then dust the tops of the bread with powdered sugar.
Per serving: 376 calories (35 percent from fat), 15 grams total fat (7 grams saturated), 164 milligrams cholesterol, 50 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams protein, 502 milligrams sodium, 8 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 4 servings
For the onions:
3/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
2 drops Tabasco or other red pepper sauce
1 red onion, sliced into very thin slices
For the chicken:
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs beaten with 1 tablespoon water
1 1/2 cups panko
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Kosher salt and pepper, to taste
Vegetable oil, for sauteing
For the salad:
1 (5-ounce) package arugula (about 6 cups)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley, to garnish
To make the pickled onions: In a medium non-metal bowl, combine the vinegar with 1/2 cup cold water. Add the salt, sugar and pepper sauce; stir. Add the onions and set aside. Allow to marinate for at least 1 hour.
To make the chicken: Set up a breading station by placing flour on a plate, the egg/water mixture in a shallow bowl, and the panko and Parmesan cheese in another shallow bowl.
Put two chicken breasts in a gallon zip-top bag and use a mallet to pound the chicken until it is thin and uniform in thickness. Repeat with the other breasts. Remove the breasts, season with salt and pepper on both sides, dredge in the flour, then the egg/water mixture, and finally the panko mixture, pressing the breadcrumbs in to make sure the chicken is evenly coated. Put the chicken breasts on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper and put it in the fridge for at least 1 hour.
When ready to cook the chicken, put 1/2-inch vegetable oil into a large pan and turn it to medium-high heat. In batches of two, making sure not to crowd the chicken or the chicken will become greasy and soggy, brown both sides of the breast, about 4 minutes on each side until a meat thermometer registers 165 degrees. Put the chicken on paper towels to dry and sprinkle with salt.
To make the salad: In a large bowl, combine the arugula with the pickled red onions. Dress this with some of the pickling liquid from the onions and toss to combine.
To serve: Place the chicken on a plate and top with the salad. Garnish with parsley.
Per serving: 436 calories (34 percent from fat), 16 grams total fat (5 grams saturated), 184 milligrams cholesterol, 31 grams carbohydrates, 40 grams protein, 665 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Source: Adapted from chef Anne Burrell’s Port Milanese
Zach’s Simple Tostadas or Wontons
Makes 10 tostadas or roughly 24 wontons
1 pound hamburger (Zach likes 96 percent lean)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 (1-ounce) package taco seasoning
1 (11-ounce) can Mexican corn, drained
1 (14.5-ounce) can refried beans (save half for another use)
8 ounces shredded cheddar cheese, divided
1 (10-count) package of tostada shells or 1 (14-ounce) package wonton wrappers
1 cup shredded lettuce, for garnish
1 onion, diced, for garnish
4 Roma tomatoes, diced, for garnish
Sour cream, for serving
Salsa, for dipping
Vegetable oil, for frying
For the tostadas: Brown the hamburger in a skillet. Season meat with salt and pepper. Drain fat from the meat, return to the skillet and add the taco seasoning mix. Add Mexican corn and heat until warmed through. Add in half the can of the refried beans and allow it to melt into the mixture. (You have to stir a lot to mix it in completely.) Add in half the cheese and allow to melt.
To serve, place a tostada shell on a plate, cover with meat mixture and top with some of the remaining cheese (because Zach thinks you can’t have too much cheese), lettuce, onion and tomatoes. Repeat with remaining tostadas.
Variation for the wontons: Put 1 inch of vegetable oil in a skillet and heat to medium high heat. Put 4 wonton wrappers on a flat surface and fill with 1-2 tablespoons of the meat mixture. Wet your fingers and fold the wonton wrapper into a triangle, seal with your wet finger. (Make sure it is completely sealed or it will leak out and burn.) Working in batches, slide the wontons in the oil using tongs and fry on each side until it is golden brown, usually less than a minute. Place on a paper towel to drain.
To serve, arrange wontons on a plate with sour cream and salsa for dipping.
Per serving, based on 5, using tostada shells: 715 calories (55 percent from fat), 44 grams total fat (18 grams saturated), 110 milligrams cholesterol, 46 grams carbohydrates, 36 grams protein, 987 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.
Per serving, based on 5, using wonton wrappers: 818 calories (43 percent from fat), 39 grams total fat (17 grams saturated), 117 milligrams cholesterol, 75 grams carbohydrates, 42 grams protein, 1,035 milligrams sodium.
Editor’s note: Depending on the age of the child, working with hot oil requires parental supervision.