Kristi Cassola realized her son was different when he was 3.
"I gave him a glass of juice and he said, 'That's way too boring. It needs garnish,' " she said.
The now-12-year-old who just finished sixth grade at Liberty Middle School is as demanding and knowledgeable about food today-and his passion for cooking is starting to get some major attention for the otherwise quiet boy who doesn't like to boast.
Last summer, Carter Cassola submitted a recipe for stuffed red bell peppers that earned him an invite to represent North Dakota at a White House dinner hosted by Michelle Obama. In January, he applied for Food Network competition show "Chopped Junior" and flew to New York to film the episode that aired for the first time on Tuesday, June 14.
The outcome of the "Chopped Junior" episode was not available as of press time.
It doesn't take long to figure out Carter is the head chef at home.
He was quick to correct his father, Steve Cassola, about his mistaken reference to lemon peel instead of calling it lemon zest. Carter also accurately predicted the pan was too hot to flambe shortly before Steve poured in liquor-splattering hot liquid onto the countertop and stove just like Carter had warned.
"If you haven't noticed, when Carter's in the kitchen, it's Carter's kitchen," Steve said.
While some kids his age would rattle off sports statistics or favorite songs, Carter talks about the hour he spends each day watching cooking shows and the cookbooks he's added to his collection.
And that means instead of worrying about sprained ankles or broken bones, the possible injuries of playing a sport, Carter's parents have had to learn to accept the cut fingers and burned hands that come with their oldest child's passion for cooking.
They've had time to figure it out. Carter said he first started to help with cooking when he was about 4, and he's always liked making scrambled eggs with pepperoni in the morning. He still makes his own breakfast each morning, and it's usually an omelette, never a bowl of cereal, Kristi said.
He made his first cheesecake at age 6-it was "pretty good," he humbly said-and he now likes to make pasta, lasagna, ravioli and shrimp scampi.
During the school year, homework and practicing the violin and piano limit his kitchen availability. But Carter makes his parents and two younger siblings dinner a few times a week during the summer months, and Steve now brings Carter's molasses cookies or cannoli whenever there's a treat day at his office.
Carter even has his own drawer in the family's spacious kitchen where he keeps his set of Wusthof knives that he bought with Christmas present money.
His younger age can be an issue because it makes it harder for Carter to understand the more pragmatic parts of cooking.
"He loves to create expensive and the more ingredients, the better," Kristi said. "He doesn't quite realize that you can't just go get fresh scallops whenever you want to."
Carter uses "fresh everything," nothing dried or frozen-though he does have a soft spot for frozen microwaveable pizzas, his guilty pleasure of a meal.
And his parents give Carter as much latitude as they can, referring to his time in the kitchen as "free play" that can help him become more confident and gifted in his chosen path.
After Carter won the 2015 Healthy Lunchtime Challenge recipe contest for North Dakota and went to the White House dinner, event organizers helped connect the Cassola family with Eric Watson, co-owner and chef of Mezzaluna and Rustica restaurants in Fargo-Moorhead.
Watson has since met Carter to talk shop and serve as a mentor, working with the aspiring chef on basic skill development like using a knife, learning different frying techniques and mastering the art of fabricating a chicken when they've met.
"He's definitely not afraid of being in a professional kitchen environment," Watson said. "He seems pretty comfortable and pretty cozy, which is surprising and kind of took me off guard. He's very confident for someone his age."
Carter said he learned to believe in his cooking "when people liked my food."
Once he's old enough to work, Carter hopes to get a job at Mezzaluna and get one step closer to his dream of working as a chef at an Italian restaurant.
Until then, he'll keep cooking up meals that many adults would only get if they went to a restaurant. While his food can be complex, his motivation is undeniably simple-whether it lands him on national TV or fills a few plates on the family table.
"I just like making and eating food," he said.