Cooking virtually: Chapel Hill chef gives lessons to boy in Maryland

By Britney Nguyen

When he’s not playing Fortnite and talking with his friends, 11-year-old Grayson McBride is in his kitchen making his fancy homemade mac and cheese or coming up with ways to improve the recipe on the back of a box of Ghirardelli brownie mix.

Grayson logs on to FaceTime at 11 a.m. once every two weeks, from his home in Crofton, Maryland, to start his one-hour cooking lesson with Chef Alex Colaianni who is based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Since mid-May, the two have met to cook together over video call.

“A big part of being a chef is we teach all the time,” Colaianni said. “I wasn’t teaching anyone how to cook, so I thought I’d give this a try. I’ve never done it this way.”

Grayson was 10 when he was introduced to Colaianni. At the first meeting, Colaianni interviewed Grayson so he could understand what his parents meant when they told him about their son who loves to cook.

Though Grayson was shy at first, Colaianni was able to warm Grayson up pretty quickly, and the two immediately had a connection. Colaianni said he loves working with kids, and that it reminds him, at 58 years old, what it was like to be 10 or 11.

Though Grayson was shy at first, he quickly warmed up to Colaianni, and the two immediately bonded. Colaianni said he loves working with kids and that it reminds him, at 58 years old, what it was like to be 10 or 11.

“There’s a point when you’re trying to be a chef and say, ‘do this right, and do that right,’” said Colaianni, “then you just look on the screen and go, ‘Oh, I remember that kid. That was me.’”

The makings of a chef

Scott McBride, Grayson’s father, said that when restaurants started closing down because of COVID-19, the family started cooking from home.

“What we tried to do is involve the kids, and we wanted the kids to take some ownership of the cooking process,” McBride said.

The first time Grayson had cooked for his family was two years ago when he made crescent roll pizza pockets. McBride said he and his wife, April, also noticed that Grayson enjoyed when he would make brownies and cookies.

Around the same time, the restaurant where Colaianni worked closed in March due to COVID-19. Being stuck at home created a gap in his schedule, and an opportunity in Grayson’s.

Colaianni said that Grayson’s unique experience reminded him of his 30-something year career. “One or two key moments stand out, and all of them had to do with access to someone I could learn from,” he said.

Preparation and instruction

The cooking duo were introduced after McBride and Marshele Carter, Colaianni’s wife, reconnected in March. They met in 2013 through the master’s program at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media after McBride’s advisor connected them because of his Coast Guard scholarship and their shared military background.

McBride said that when they called each other to check in, Carter told him that her husband, whom she married in November 2019, was a chef.

“We were like, ‘How cool would it be if maybe Alex can teach Grayson during COVID virtually over FaceTime?’” McBride said.

McBride said Carter loved the idea, so they set up the first call in early April to introduce Colaianni to Grayson.

Colaianni said that at the time, he had a menu plan for a restaurant he was planning to open, so he sent the menu to Grayson and told him to research all of the items on the menu. Grayson had to research definitions, cooking styles and origins of food on the menu.

On May 15, Grayson and Colaianni had their first virtual cooking lesson. Grayson learned how to make an omelet, the first thing every chef learns how to make in culinary school.

“It teaches you to manage the heat of your pan,” Grayson said. “I learned that for omelets, you never want to put butter to make your pan not stick, because the butter will brown before the omelet can cook.”

For each of the following lessons, Colaianni would send Grayson a recipe to do research on, then send Grayson’s mom a shopping list with ingredients and tools he would need to prepare the meal.

Since the first lesson, Grayson has learned how to make burgers in a pan, how to roast a whole chicken and how to make mac and cheese with mozzarella, cheddar and brie.

The Final Test

On August 1, Colaianni and Carter visited Grayson’s house to prepare for a 3-hour cooking session for the first time in the same kitchen.

Colaianni and Grayson cooked multiple recipes at the same time while McBride, with the role of sous chef, was trying to keep up.

Grayson and Colaianni served a dinner buffet to Carter, Grayson’s father and mother, his 14-year-old brother Connor, his maternal grandparents and his aunt.

“It was steak asiago on arugula salad, pesto without pine nuts, because me and my brother are allergic, chicken salad with sunflower seeds and golden raisins, caprese salad, roasted Tuscan vegetables, guacamole, salsa and chips and my mac and cheese,” Grayson said.

At the dinner, Colaianni gave Grayson a real chef’s jacket, black with his name embroidered on his left side in neat white letters.

“He got to feel the ultimate thing, which is looking at the faces of the people you’re cooking for and watching them eat your food and seeing how happy they were,” Colaianni said. “He got to be proud.”

Next on the menu…

One of the lessons Grayson learned from Colaianni is that a cook follows recipes, but a chef makes recipes. McBride said Grayson naturally likes to experiment with food.

McBride and Carter wanted to give Colaianni good publicity to thank him for his dedication to teaching Grayson, so they reached out to an adjunct professor in the UNC Hussman School who had contacts at Spectrum News.

On September 3, Grayson and Colaianni’s FaceTime cooking lesson was filmed by a Spectrum News reporter, and Grayson was interviewed for television.

“I’m the chief of media for the Coast Guard so I prepare admirals to speak all the time, but preparing Grayson for that interview was my hardest one,” McBride said.

Although it seems as though Grayson is on track for a promising career as a chef, he’s still only a kid focused on playing flag football, Boy Scouts, swimming and playing percussion in the school band.

“I really have no idea what I want to be when I grow up,” Grayson said.

McBride said it has been an amazing experience watching Grayson grow with Colaianni.

“Alex said that if you want to be a chef, you have to love cooking for others,” McBride said. “Grayson loves that.”


Edited by Evan Castillo