It's a weekday afternoon in Chicago, and the drive-through lanes of north-suburban fast-food chains are clogged with car pools of kids lining up for burgers and fries. But not far away, at the end of a leafy road in Riverwoods, six-year-old Gio Tramonto is home, whipping up his own lunch: spaetzle with mustard and chives and, for dessert, hazelnut meringues glazed with chocolate. After climbing up a step stool to plop a few eggs into a mixing bowl, he wipes his hands on his T-shirt and, just for fun, in his fuzzy blond hair. Gio's mom, Gale Gand, rolls her eyes. "We have a saying when we're cooking: 'Everything is washable.'"
Gand, the pastry chef at Tru, the downtown restaurant she co-founded four years ago with Rick Tramonto, her ex-husband and Gio's dad, can be seen six days a week on her Food Network program, Sweet Dreams, offering detailed instructions (and plenty of motherly encouragement) on candy-, cookie- and cake-making. But when she and Gio are at home cooking together, the kid takes center stage. Though most of his playmates have yet to stretch their talents beyond microwaving frozen pizza and chicken nuggets, Gio is one of a growing number of kids inspired by charismatic TV chefs. That Gio's mom is herself a celebrity chef hasn't hurt either.
Gio was a toddler when he first started "poking around, showing interest in what I was doing in the kitchen," Gand says. She began gradually showing him how to cook: "At two, he mixed the eggs, at three he cracked and mixed them and at four he got them out of the fridge, cracked them, mixed them and grated cheese to go on top." Since then, Gio has gotten more and more involved in the cooking process, and he can now help his mom from start to finish with a solid repertoire of dishes: He can make applesauce, mix pretzel dough, coat pork chops with Japanese-style panko crumbs made from shredded white bread (his mom does the frying) and assemble the crust and filling for a rhubarb pie. Gio claims to have invented "565 million recipes." Gand clarifies: "When he says, 'Mom, I have a recipe for you: vanilla cake with chocolate frosting,' he thinks he's coming up with something new." Still, Gio's instincts are good: One morning he came up with the eureka idea of chopping a smoky salami into his scrambled eggs (the sausage happened to be a handmade one TV chef Mario Batali, of the Food Network's Molto Mario, had given Gand).
Gand says she "hovers all the time," coaching Gio on his culinary skills and keeping him out of danger. "You make cooking as safe as possible without instilling fear," she explains. Rick Tramonto says fearlessness is Gio's M.O. when he visits Tru, where he's even helped devein shrimp and chop potatoes: "There's fire and ice and knives and big dudes running around and he's this little guy, but he's got no issues with that."
Watching mother and son cooking together, it's clear they've perfected a system of easy give-and-take. Gio goes "chop, chop, choppity, chop," as he snips chives into his spaetzle batter with a pair of scissors, following a recipe inspired by Gand's former boss, New York City chef Alfred Portale of Gotham Bar & Grill. When the dough is ready, he moves aside so Gand can hold the colander over the boiling water while he presses the batter through. But Gio keeps the commentary coming. "Aw, gross! It's like bugs coming through. I can't look at the ugly chopped-up worms!" He buries his head in his arms, then pops up to peer into the pot. "Except I have to, because I'm going to eat them."
So far, Gio says he's considering becoming a race car driver or a cook when he grows up. And despite his mother's objections ("I'm pushing for race car driver; it's much safer"), he says he might just open his own restaurant one day. What would he call it? That's easy. Squaring his little-man shoulders, he pronounces, in stagy Spanglish, "El Gio Excelente."
Louisa Kamps is a freelance writer specializing in arts and culture whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, Elle and the New York Times Book Review.