Meet Kirkland Tap & Trotter’s 15-Year-Old Kitchen Prodigy

Bobby Dandliker might look (and cook) like a seasoned chef, but he's still a freshman in high school.

bobby dandliker

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Our fascination with child prodigies predates Tiger, Bobby Fischer, and Salinger’s Glass family. As evidence, you’d have to go back much further, to the genius of Mozart, Rimbaud, and a burgeoning Picasso. But lately, as America’s obsession with food and fine dining has reached unparalleled new heights, we’re starting to see precocious tweens forsaking tennis rackets, chess boards, and violins for the toque and cleaver. Case in point: Eureka’s Flynn McGarry, who, at 15, has already apprenticed under Grant Achatz (Alinea), Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison Park), and Ari Taymor (Alma), and whose private, San Fernando Valley supper club draws in Hollywood celebrities at $160 a head.

Boston’s Bobby Dandliker might not measure up to McGarry’s talent (at least not yet) or ambition (he’s famous for saying he wants to open a Michelin-starred restaurant by the time he’s 19), but when it comes to that single-minded determination, Dandliker excels. At just five-years-old he found himself drawn to the kitchen, emulating dishes he’d seen at some of the best restaurants in his hometown of Chicago. And by 10—now living in Boston because of his father’s career at Merck—he would have a life-altering meal at Craigie on Main that forever cemented his future behind the pass.

“He came in with his grandmother and a friend of his and sat at the ringside seats,” Maws recalls. “Our hostess came to me and said, ‘These guys would really love to meet you.’ When I went over there, one friend thought it was kind of cool, but Bobby was just entranced—with the kitchen, and meeting me, and the whole thing. Jokingly, I said, ‘Hey, if you need a summer job, you should come talk to me.’ I probably say that to most kids, just to make them laugh. But Bobby took it seriously. He actually wrote me a letter the next day. So, I told him and his parents, ‘I’ll do this, but if he’s coming into this kitchen, it’s not going to be some joke. I’m not going to tell my sous chefs that this kid is coming in only to have him wasting our time. Even if it’s just picking parsley, he’s going to learn how to pick parsley, and he’s going to have to do it right.'”

Now at 15, Dandliker has had three years of training under Maws—first at Craigie and now Kirkland Tap & Trotter—as well as one successful solo endeavor, a pop-up at Cuisine en Locale that showcased his skills in dishes like a crudo of Kampachi, roasted rack of lamb, and gnocchi with a duck confit ragout. This summer, after going on break like the rest of his freshman class at Newton South High School, Dandliker will not only become a full-time cook at Kirkland, but will host more pop-ups, and plans to stage at Dave Punch’s latest endeavor, an East Asian “soul food diner” in Newton.

When asked about the potential of his young disciple, Maws vented concerns that Dandliker might get wrapped up in the hype machine, or what he refers to as “his name in the lights.” But he also said, “Do I think he has real talent? The short answer is yes, and he’s shown a commitment to it, which I think is really admirable. Beyond what he becomes in food, he’s set his mind to doing something. I don’t know of many 14-year-old kids who have that kind of awareness. Developmentally, that’s pretty different.”

Below, we caught up with Dandliker (who was laid up from a recent ankle injury playing frisbee) to ask him about his gastronomic upbringing, the dishes that have proved most influential to his young career, and his thoughts concerning his culinary future.

How did you first get into cooking?

Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved eating. I would always sit in the kitchen and help my mom cook. I just loved the atmosphere, and as I got older I learned to love it more and more. So about five years ago, when we moved here from Chicago, I decided I wanted to start working in restaurants and learning how to cook, like for real.

At 10 years old?

Yeah, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2012 when I got my first job. But the whole idea was very romantic to me. So I decided to try it out and I really love it. At 12 I was in the basement at Craigie on Main shelling peas and peeling potatoes and just kind of watching and observing while I was prepping vegetables for the day. It just kind of grew from there.

What really inspired you to get in the kitchen? Was it chefs on television, books, your parents influence, or some combination of those things?

It wasn’t so much us cooking at home. As you probably know, Chicago has an amazing food scene and so we would go to all these restaurants. I just loved it! At four and five-years-old I’d be trying everything, then I’d go home and try to recreate my favorite dishes. There was one restaurant called Tank, which is a sushi place, and they serve this tempura battered fish and chips with kimchi. I thought it was the craziest thing ever, but I really loved it.

How old were you when you had this food epiphany at Tank?

I think I was five.

Wow! What were some other Chicago restaurants that ultimately influenced your decision?

As I got older, I’d say The Publican, Girl and the Goat, and Alinea, which as was insane, to say the least.

How did you single out Craigie on Main as the place you wanted to work? Were you familiar with Tony Maws’ cooking?

A couple months before I decided to call him I’d eaten at Craigie. As you know, he has an open kitchen and I got to sit at the chef’s table where I could see into the kitchen and see all of the action. Tony was standing at the pass, and it just seemed like everything I’d always imagined. So, I decided to reach out to him and see if he would take me on. It definitely took some time to get ahold of him, but once I finally did he gave me the green light.

Besides prepping vegetables, what were some of your other jobs under Tony Maws?

Well, I just recently left Craigie after two-and-a-half years. Now I’m at Kirkland Tap & Trotter. But about six months into my time there [at Craigie] I became a cook during brunch service. During the school year, that’s my ideal, having a brunch station. It’s my one day a week where I get to do the cooking for the restaurant.

Would you say Tony and the other chefs at Craigie have had the biggest impact on your career up until this point?

Without a doubt. When I think about learning, every time you do something you get better at it and you learn how to do it differently. Every time I cut an onion, it’s not some mundane task for me. It’s an opportunity to get better. I really try to approach everything that I do with that kind of mentality. It’s been infinitely helpful in my endeavors.

How did you prepare for your first solo pop-up at Cuisine en Locale? Were these dishes you perfected while working at Craigie or did they go back even further?

Some of them were my greatest hits, others I was just winging. I’d only made a country pâté once before that, but people loved it.

How do you see your own cooking? Do you lean toward any particular styles or techniques?

I don’t find myself leaning in any one direction, but I definitely bring some heavy Asian influence to my food. Like I always keep bonito and kombu and miso around. But I don’t think that defines me as a cook, at least not yet. Who knows about the future.

Now that you’re on your summer break, what are your plans professionally?

I definitely want to do some pop-ups and things on my own, but that won’t prevent me from picking up more shifts at Kirkland. I work a full week during the summer. I’m also thinking of working with Dave Punch over at Sycamore. That’s something that might be coming out of the woodwork later on this year. I went to see him last night at Sycamore and we’re trying to work something out where I work at his new place.

When is your next pop-up?

June 14. This one will be called “Spring.” I’m keeping it pretty loose right now, but I know I’ll be doing a riff on a fried oyster dish I saw at O Ya. Their fried Kumamoto oyster I think is the best fried oyster I’ve ever had. So, my take on it will be this little bowl of sushi rice with fried oysters and some yuzu aioli. For a second course, I’m going to pull in the summer theme and prepare a dish that will evoke some memories. Like at my “Once” dinner I prepared s’mores for dessert, because everybody has had s’mores and has memories of sitting around a campfire roasting marshmallows. So, for this dinner I’m going to do a picnic basket with a cured duck breast, homemade cheese like a fromage blanc or mozzarella, bread, homemade sodas, a rillette, and a pickle. For the third course, I’m doing a play on a Craigie-inspired dish. I’m going to do a ragu with a scallion puree, polenta, fresh corn, chorizo, asparagus, some nice foraged mushrooms, and a coddled egg on top. Fourth course will be a roasted Wagyu ribeye with fennel puree, confit fingerling potatoes, black trumpet mushrooms, fava beans, and English peas. And for dessert, I have no idea. Dessert is not my forte.

So you just finished your freshman year of high school?

I’m a couple months away. But yeah, I’ll be a sophomore next year.

After you graduate, do you see yourself going to culinary school? Or do you feel like you’re already getting enough on-the-job training? 

I don’t really see myself in culinary school. To be completely honest with you, almost every cook I’ve asked says it’s a waste of money. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I think I’m going to go to a four-year school, possibly for a business degree.

Are you going to stick with cooking, though?

Absolutely! I don’t see myself doing anything else. I want to open a little restaurant, nothing too big, where I can just cook really good food everyday—food that will make people happy.