Rusty Zia: A prodigy with squash, apples, tomato cultivation, languages and more

Photo by Asim Zia
Rusty Zia is a 12-year-old with many talents; baking prize-winning brownies is one.

When City Market announced a contest for recipes using local butternut squash, Rustum “Rusty” Zia of Shelburne, a member of the store’s Kids’ Club, decided to give it a shot.

The seventh grader at Shelburne Community School had never entered any kind of cooking or recipe contest before, but his chocolate butternut squash fudge cake was awarded first prize, ahead of entries by others with many more years in the kitchen. The judging took place at the Burlington Winter Farmers’ Market at UVM.

“I changed my mind many times about what to make,” the 12-year-old said. “I thought of butternut squash waffles, yogurt, pancakes, and more. But then I thought of making butternut squash fudge brownies which was what I originally called them and I knew it was the right choice.”

The judges’ criteria included use of local ingredients, ease of making, healthiness, and originality.

“My recipe had maple syrup, butternut squash, and whipped cream, which are all local,” Rusty said. “It’s easy to make since it has so few ingredients. It tastes amazing, it has some healthy protein and fat, and it is original.”

Rusty enjoyed the competition so much that he hopes to enter the Junior Iron Chef contest next year. “This has inspired me to look into other cooking and recipe contests,” he said.

Rusty has been making himself at home in the kitchen since he was a toddler, scrambling his own eggs at the age of three and a half. He progressed from that to a chocolate mousse which his mother, Caitlin Waddick, says is the rival of any she’s eaten at a restaurant, and braised beef which he cooked up while his parents were out for the evening.

A favorite recipe is one for apple pie which Rusty has baked to raise money for a field trip with the Way of the Bard program at the Treewild School of Wizardry in Shelburne. He has experimented with various types of crust for the pies and settled on one that relies on butter instead of shortening.

Rusty learned to cook by reading cookbooks, watching his parents, and by trial and error. Cooking is a communal experience at his home with Rusty and his two sisters expected to assist with the preparation of meals, rotating as either sous chef, dishwasher or clean-up with their father, Asim Zia, as the primary chef.

Cooking is only one of Rusty’s hobbies. He enjoys gardening and has a heated seed mat with a grow light under his loft bed. His preference is for growing vegetables, with a particular fondness for cherry tomatoes.

Another hobby is studying languages. In addition to Spanish, which he is learning at school, he is teaching himself Arabic and Japanese. For a while he was working on Esperanto (billed as the universal language) but he is taking a break from that. He also plays tennis and runs track and field. His mother says he learned to ride a bike before he turned 3.

Rusty’s main interest is in computer programming with a specialty in coding games, but he concedes that cooking may eventually win out over coding. He knows that some chefs think of their food as artwork that shouldn’t be destroyed, but his goal is for people to eat and enjoy what he cooks.

“All I know now is that cooking will definitely be part of my life,” he said.

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