Saomi Gendville is house-sitting for her neighbors while they are on vacation and cooking dinner on a Wednesday evening—grown-up tasks for a 12-year-old. Standing in the all-white, newly renovated kitchen on Second St. in Gowanus, Brooklyn, she twirls her long blonde hair into a bun after giving up on figuring out how to turn on the air conditioning. She surveys the food she has spread out in the kitchen: salt and pepper on a cutting board to season chicken cutlets, a bag of rice on the counter, carrots, and a bell pepper on the other side of the kitchen island.
Gendville is cooking Japanese chicken panko for dinner, with a Sriracha honey sauce, white rice, and sautéed vegetables. As she navigates finding the right tools in the unfamiliar kitchen, she rattles off some of her favorite podcasts that she’s currently listening to. Her iPod playlist includes episodes of Nerdist, Stuff You Should Know, and Modern Love.
Gendville’s cooking skills and self-assured demeanor belies her age. The Brooklyn native has been cooking for about three years, teaching herself to make her own meals when many other kids the same age are playing video games and asking their parents “what’s for dinner?”
She covers the chicken pieces in panko bread crumbs, then rolls them thoroughly in the salt and pepper mixture. Gendville spaces the chicken out evenly on a baking pan to cook in the oven, then measures the rice to cook on the stovetop.
She has strong opinions for a rising 8th grader. Religion? “I’m an atheist,” Gendville said. “I really believe in science, like the Big Bang.” The election? Two doors down where Gendville lives, her parents have a blue Bernie sign on the front door. “Go Hillary,” she said. “Even though some of her points I don’t really support. I think it’d be cool that right after we have the first colored president we have the first woman president.”
As the breaded chicken is finished cooking in the oven, Gendville prepares the sauce to coat the chicken pieces. She measures the correct amounts of honey and Sriracha, adding chopped garlic into the sauce pan. Gendville struggles to multitask like many other cooks, almost burning the chicken and leaving the sauce on too high a heat.
Her two younger brothers, ages 8 and 3, dart in and out of the house. It’s the only time Gendville shows her age, shooing them out of the way with the annoyance that only an older sister can show a younger brother.
For the past six months, Gendville has been homeschooled so she will have a more flexible schedule to allow for family traveling, including several trips to Costa Rica. She’s undecided if she wants to return to formal school in the fall.
When she’s not cooking, Gendville also likes to make crafts, like jewelry, candles, keychains, and even spins her own yarn, which she sells through an Etsy store. When she grows up, she says she could see herself becoming a neuroscientist, following her interest in math and science. But in the near term, Gendville toys with the idea of starting her own podcast, possibly co-hosting with a friend.
Gendville is just as unique as her first name, pronounced like Naomi but with an S, which Gendville said came to her mother Loretta in a dream.
“My mom had a dream that an old woman came to her and said ‘Your daughter’s name will be Saomi.’” Gendville said, imitating a dreamy, ghost-like voice. She confesses she used to wish her name was Jessica. “It looks nice when you write it in cursive. The S in my name just doesn’t look good.”
The meal comes together as Gendville chops cucumber and cherry tomatoes into a bowl. Her dad and brothers come in for a bite, followed by her mom, who tries a piece of the breaded chicken. “Wow, that’s really good!” Loretta said. “Why don’t you cook like this more often?”
Dinner is finished out on the patio, and Gendville heads inside to start cleaning up. Her family doesn’t usually eat her cooking; they sometimes go out to a restaurant or eat beforehand, Gendville says. But on this night, as she walks over to the serving bowls, not a bit of the food is left over.