BALTIMORE, Maryland: Eli Knauer has a ravenous appetite for seeking out the juiciest meats and sweetest desserts in Baltimore restaurants. But at just 10 years old, he is no ordinary food critic.
Standing just four feet tall, Eli may appear diminutive, but he has an expansive vocabulary with which he praises, and occasionally skewers, the eateries he visits at least once a week with his parents.
The idea for his online review column flourished during a summer vacation after he told his mother he wanted to become a food critic when he grows up and she said he needed to first start a blog.
“Adventures of a Koodie” - or a kid foodie - chronicles Eli's take on restaurants in and around Baltimore on the US East Coast, as well as other areas he visits with his family of five.
Nearly a year and more than 50 restaurants later, Eli know what to look for: “The juiciness in meat, sweetness in desserts and gooeyness in cheese.” And some 120 followers now subscribe to regular updates from his blog, which has received around 43,000 page views.
Restaurateurs beware however. For Eli to reward them with his top five stars, the restaurant “has to have good food and kid-friendliness - a kids' area or TVs or entertainment with kids' stuff on it like cartoons or movies, kids' meals and kid-friendly food like pizza.” That's not surprising for someone whose favorite food is “pizza, bacon pizza!” His parents, Jason and Cheryl, encourage their son to keep up with his blog and a critique, noting it has helped improve his writing. And some of his teachers check in for ideas on where to take their own children out to eat.
“If he keeps at it and he's himself and he's always true to himself, he's gonna go far with it,” Jason Knauer, a local photographer, said as he sat on the front steps of their modest home in a Baltimore suburb.
“As a teenager, he's going to definitely have to develop that more because he's going to have a different audience.” Eli's enthusiasm and success took his parents by surprise, especially for a child who did not start talking until he was nearly four years old.
“This has helped him a lot develop his vocabulary and getting more comfortable speaking,” said Cheryl Knauer. “You would never know that this was a child you were afraid was never going to talk.” Eli has even won a small helping of fame after a host of radio, television and newspaper interviews. But at school, he's treated just like all the others, as a kid who gets in trouble once in a while, loves his cartoon shows and plays videogames.
Friends “just treat me normal,” Eli told AFP. “It doesn't matter if I'm famous or not,” he added, attributing his newfound fame to “all these followers and all these page reviews.”
For one recent review, the young food critic headed to Morton's The Steakhouse, “a fancy restaurant because people wear bow ties and fancy chef hats,” in Eli's words.
It's an award-winning restaurant more accustomed to a hushed atmosphere with couples dining on tuna tartare, filet mignon and domestic double rib lamb chops rather than macaroni and cheese and other standard American kids' fare.
But Eli was ecstatic when the server brought out a big basket of onion bread that he quickly devoured. “That's awesome. I love it, I love it!” he said, consoled somewhat after being “terrified” by a live lobster handled on a demonstration table.
Then came a bacon cheeseburger twice as wide as his face, accompanied by French fries and a Coke.
“This burger is not kid-friendly because it's so big, a kid wouldn't be able to eat it all,” Eli said, finishing barely a quarter of meal.
But he was shrewd enough to save just enough room for dessert, Morton's Legendary Sundae.
When he caught a glimpse of the towering molten chocolate cake, vanilla ice cream and whip cream extravaganza topped with a maraschino cherry, Eli's jaw dropped and his eyes popped.
The restaurant is appropriate for “kids who are quiet, kids who like to be fancy,” but no younger than eight, Eli concluded.
On his blog, he didn't mince words, giving Morton's five stars for the food, but just 1.5 stars for kid-friendliness.
“If you want to have your child go out to Morton's make sure his stomach is completely empty so he can eat every bite of his food,” he wrote.
“And make sure that he doesn't eat all of the humongous Morton's Legendary Hot Fudge Sundae (so) they don't get a humongous stomach ache!”