Bangs hanging into his eyes, his shirt plastered with an exploding skull, Austin Olechnowicz looks like your average 11-year-old boy.
Over winter break, he holed up in his room with friends on Playstation for 12 hours at a stretch. At dinnertime, though, his family usually gets to see another side of Austin: the cook.
Two years ago, as a 9-year-old fourth-grader, Austin made dinner for his parents. He had some coaching from his chef uncle, Marty Haugh Jr., but it was his hands at the stove.
His main motivation will sound familiar to any parent: "Because I was bored one day."
Over the last year, Austin, who attends Frontier Middle School, has been cooking his family's dinner two or three times a week, with advice from his uncle and spurred on by watching a multitude of Food Network shows.
His mother, Nancy, is a medical receptionist, and his father, Rich, is a machine shop inspector, with both working hours that make it difficult to get dinner on the table at a standard time.
Austin's help has been extremely valuable, though Rich cooks dinner, too, Nancy Olechnowicz said. "Between the two of them, it does help out a lot." (The boys are usually cooking for three -- sister Sierra, 13, is pretty much a vegetarian and subsists largely on pasta, as Austin tells it.)
Of course, Austin has his reasons for taking charge in the kitchen. Boredom is just the beginning.
"He'd rather cook it than have us cook it," said Nancy Olechnowicz.
Why is that, Austin?
"Because they don't make sauces right," he said.
Like the lemon sauce for the Chicken Francaise, one of his favorite recipes, contributed by his uncle, who is a cook at the Hamburg Casino. "I like it more lemony," Austin said, where his mother prefers a milder sauce.
As Austin chops and stirs, he checks the recipe, handwritten on a stained piece of notebook paper. He has adjusted some of the details to suit his taste.
Austin's standards include spice-rubbed chicken that roasts on a beer can in the oven, or on the barbecue grill, his father said. Another favorite is shrimp with cashews and green beans, served with rice. Steaks and hamburgers are grill favorites, and even crab legs.
Though Austin watches loads of Food Network programming, he doesn't profess to have a favorite show. He has one program saved on the DVR that he wants to cook from, an episode of Anne Burrell's "Secrets of a Restaurant Chef" in which she makes chicken pot pie.
Does he want to be a professional cook when he grows up? he's asked, a not entirely fair question for a sixth-grader.
"I don't know," he said.
Recently Austin branched out into jerky making, inspired in part by his father. A veteran hunter, Rich had plenty of venison in the freezer. A food dehydrator later, and they were making venison jerky in chipotle and teriyaki flavors.
Austin, no fan of spicy things, preferred the teriyaki. He liked it so much he started carrying the recipe in his wallet.
Why? His response was polite considering 11-year-olds inevitably find themselves surrounded by adults asking dumb questions:
"In case I want to make it somewhere."
>Chicken Francaise (Lemon Chicken)
4 large boneless chicken breasts
1 cup Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon seasoned salt
1 teaspoon each salt and pepper
1 to 2 cups vegetable oil
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 1/3 cups flour
1 cup water or chicken stock
4 tablespoons butter, cut into chunks
Set oven to 350 degrees. Pour a half-inch of oil into a large frying pan over medium heat.
Trim chicken of fat. Fillet breasts and flatten pieces if needed to get pieces about 1/2 inch thick.
Combine eggs, 1/2 cup Parmesan, garlic powder, onion powder and seasoned salt in a medium bowl. In another bowl, put 1 cup flour and add 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, 1 teaspoon each salt and pepper, and stir.
Dust flattened chicken in seasoned flour, then coat with egg-Parmesan batter and place in frying pan. Cook, turning, until both sides are golden brown, about 3 to 5 minutes each side.
When done, place chicken on a baking sheet in a 350 degree oven for about 15 to 20 minutes, while you make lemon sauce.
To make lemon butter sauce:
Remove all oil except 1/3 cup from frying pan. Add 1/3 cup flour to pan, over medium heat, and stir for a minute or two. Add water or chicken stock a little at a time until a gravy forms.
Add lemon juice gradually until you like the taste. Slowly add butter a piece at a time, stirring until it becomes smooth and creamy.
Season with salt and pepper to taste, pour over chicken, and serve.
>Green Beans and Bacon
1 12-ounce bag frozen green beans
1/2 cup baby carrots, sliced lengthwise
4 or 5 slices bacon
1 clove garlic, sliced
1 small onion, chopped
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Cook the bacon in a skillet until crisp. Saute garlic and onion over medium-high heat, using vegetable oil or bacon fat. Meanwhile, blanch beans and carrots in a separate pan.
Break bacon into small pieces. Pour garlic, onion and bacon over beans and carrots, and serve.
Name: Austin Olechnowicz
Dish: Chicken Francaise (Lemon Chicken)
Mouths to feed: 4
Go-to-instant meal: Chicken stir-fry
Guilty pleasure: Chicken Cordon Bleu