Kalamata’s Kitchen, a new children’s book series, is designed to help kids and parents bond over food.

If you’ve never heard of Kalamata’s Kitchen, that’s because it’s an imaginary place where a little girl named Kalamata goes on “food adventures” with friends she calls her “Taste Buds,” and they all seek out and try new foods together. But these adventure take place in real cities and with real people.

It’s all part of a new series of children’s books designed to help parents and children bond over food. Kalamata’s first stop is Portland, Maine, where the creators of the series launched the first book last weekend.

Her first local Taste Bud? Chef Ilma Lopez, co-owner of Portland restaurants Piccolo and Chaval.

Derek Wallace of Dover, New Hampshire, is the founder of Kalamata’s Kitchen. He spent 17 years working in sales and marketing before leaving to start the project. He says he came up with the idea while sitting on his sofa at home, thinking about how he might be able to connect with his then 3-year-old son over food.

“I love experiencing the world through food,” he said. “That’s a big deal to me, and it’s something I didn’t really get to do as a child. I was trying to figure out how I could do that with my son.”

The idea is to show kids that kitchens can be playgrounds, supermarkets can be like toy stores and restaurants are like theaters, the founder of Kalamata’s Kitchen says.

The idea is to show kids that kitchens can be playgrounds, supermarkets can be like toy stores, and restaurants are like theaters, Wallace says. In each new “food-adventure city,” Kalamata – who will be the central character of each book – meets a local chef and prepares a dish that has a story. Ideally, parent and child read the book together, then go visit a restaurant in one of the highlighted cities.

“Kids can smell a lesson coming from a mile away,” says Sarah Thomas, author of the Kalamata’s books and a sommelier at the acclaimed Le Bernardin in New York. “That’s where the idea for the storybook comes from.”

In Portland, Kalamata meets with Lopez, who – through the magic of a children’s book – is transformed back into a child in her Abuelita’s (grandmother’s) kitchen. They bake a cake that Lopez and her grandmother actually used to bake together in real life; the recipe for the cake is included in the book.

“Ilma said she makes the cake all the time for her daughter,” Thomas said.

In the Portland story, Kalamata and Lopez are accompanied by Kalamata’s “primary Taste Bud,” a stuffed alligator named Al Dente.

“In every story, there will be a different Taste Bud that comes to visit,” Thomas said. “Each one includes an actual food memory by an actual chef. Together, using that scent memory, they go off on an adventure.”

The characters are drawn by artist Jo Edwards, in bold colors and with big eyes. The cartoon version of Lopez is a sweet characterization that actually looks like the real-life chef.

Lopez said she was “super honored” to be a character in the book, and her daughter Isabella loved it too, “although she’s all about Al Dente.”

The chef said she especially loved Edwards’ illustrations of her grandmother’s kitchen. The artist, Lopez said, accurately captured the concrete counter tops in the kitchen and the fabric covers her grandmother made to cover the pots and pans because they couldn’t afford cabinetry. She also re-created an apron Lopez’s grandmother made for her.

“She put all of that in the book,” Lopez said. “That’s extremely special.”

A portion of the proceeds from the books, which cost $19.95 each, goes to charity, and the chef-partner gets to choose the recipient. In Portland, Ilma Lopez chose Full Plates Full Potential.

Wallace chose Portland as the first food-adventure city because he comes here three to four times a week so is familiar with its restaurants. Other cities that are scheduled for their own books include Asheville, North Carolina; Austin, Texas; Kansas City, Missouri; Nashville, Tennessee; Portland, Oregon; and Washington, D.C.

Each book lists several local, kid-friendly restaurants that Wallace and his team think parents and children should visit together. In these places, instead of the parent handing the child an iPad to play with, they are encouraged to taste and talk about food together. Some of the restaurants seem an odd choice for children, but Wallace said they were chosen from a database the Kalamata team put together that scores a restaurant on 28 points: Is there a visually vibrant interior with art on the walls? Are high chairs and/or changing stations available? Is there stroller parking? Restaurants don’t have to meet every data point, Wallace said. The Honey Paw, for example, has no high chairs, “but they embrace kids.”

Other local venues that have been “Kalamata-approved” include Allagash Brewing Co., Chaval, Duckfat, Eventide Oyster Co., Piccolo, Tandem Coffee & Bakery, Terlingua, Vena’s Fizz House, and Oxbow Blending & Bottling Co., where Kalamata’s Kitchen threw its launch party last weekend.

Wallace said that at first, the restaurants they approached to be partners thought Kalamata’s Kitchen was some kind of pay-to-play advertising scheme. Instead, the restaurant staff learned, participating restaurants get a box filled with kids’ stuff such as Kalamata stickers, books, Taste Bud membership cards and a vegetable matching game, all meant to take the place of the crayons and coloring books some restaurateurs put out for their youngest customers.

“The restaurants love it because it’s educational,” Wallace said.

The Kalamata concept includes online merchandising, as well. Parents can buy their little foodies a pint-sized Kalamata’s kitchen apron, a chef’s knife roll (without the knives), and kitchen tools such as whisks and wooden spoons.

Wallace hopes that the Kalamata’s Kitchen series will, ultimately, give parents more quality time with their children, and tools through which they can help their kids build confidence and understand other cultures. Wallace said that he was 30 years old before he knew the difference between an onion and a shallot. His son, now 4, can already tell the difference between cilantro and parsley, thanks to their mutual exploration of food.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad

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