Feted in Ottawa, River McCluskey returned to Apex this month with a crisp white apron, a white chef’s jacket, and a culinary tradition in the finest restaurants – a high white chef’s hat.

He spent the weekend of Oct. 19 in Ottawa thanks to a recipe he devised himself – Baked Arctic Char with Citrus Relish. River, 9, entered himself into the Kid Food Nation recipe contest, with the help of his mom Kerry.

The recipe idea came after a vacation in Cuba, where the two tasted a fresh relish that left an impression.

“There was a barbecue stand set up on the beach. We found it our second day there. It was amazing, but the thing that made it amazing was this fresh, fresh relish. It was just tangy and full of flavour, it just brought this food to life,” said Kerry.

“We talked about it for five years.”

Earlier this year, while visiting at a friend in Quebec, River said, “I want to make that relish.”

River McCluskey, 9, was one of 26 youth aged seven to 12 who won in the Kid Food Nation recipe contest. The weekend of Oct. 19 he and his healthy-cooking cohort were celebrated at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier in Ottawa. Photo courtesy Boys and Girls Club of Canada.

Kerry was taken by surprise, because until then they’d only talked about it in the past tense.

“He went around Suzanne’s kitchen – not even our own kitchen – gathering up all these ingredients. And made it. After that, kept working on it. That was the part that was amazing to me … To watch this person just keep working on this until he was happy with all the different flavours.”

The key to River’s recipe seems to be the combination of fresh-squeezed lemon, lime, and orange juice, which took many weeks to perfect.

“And tomatoes, cucumbers,” said River, adding his mother was one of his taste-testers.

When the two cook together, they don’t write down their inventions. But to enter the contest, measurements were required.

“We took all of the ingredients and he made the recipe, and as he was making it I was measuring the ingredients he was putting in,” said Kerry.

How did he react when he found out he’d won in the recipe contest?

“Crazy. We were yelling,” said River.

“I was crying,” said Kerry.

The big event was held at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, where mother and son stayed courtesy of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada, and the federal government, which sponsors the program.

The goal is to encourage healthy choices about the food youth eat, empower parents and families to plan, prepare, and cook healthy meals and snacks, and foster healthy habits for life.

“Having kids engaged in healthy meal preparation can have a tremendous impact on their health and well-being, and forms positive, healthy habits for the future,” stated federal minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor in a news release.

Though River is mostly quiet during his interview with Nunavut News – after all he’d just spend the weekend with 25 seven- to 12-year-old foodies from across the country in front of cameras – mom and son talk about food all the time.

Kerry, with the help of a few other adults, runs Mamaqtuq Nanook Cooking Club at Nanook School in Apex. Her son and about 30 other young cooks learn all about preparing healthy foods. She was encouraged by how the goals of Kid Food Nation and Mamaqtuq merge.

In addition to celebrating their win, the 26 youth cooked with chefs.

“They had six cooking stations and they had chefs at each one and the kids who won, the 26 …” said Kerry.

River interrupts with, “Went around and made all the stuff. They told us to make different stuff, like chicken burgers.”

The youth made other recipes, such as  braised short ribs on polenta, spring rolls, a triangular pumpkin ravioli, and a kale chick pea Caesar salad.

The chefs were from partner President’s Choice Children’s Charity, whose goal is “to put the power of food into the hands of Canadian children.” The charity also supplies the food.

River’s recipe, along with other winning recipes, will be published in the Kid Food Nation cookbook. And tune in to YTV Nov. 3 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. as the young chefs were hosted by TV personality Carlos Bustamante.

Another partner, Corus Entertainment, created the Kid Food Nation website, where youth can play games, watch videos, learn a few tips and facts about healthy eating, and check out recipes.

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