I spent much of my youth with my nose buried in my mother's cookbooks, so I have always thought I had a rather food-obsessed childhood. But I was put in my place a year-and-a-half ago, when I learned that two Chicago-area girls—sisters Isabella and Olivia Gerasole, now 11 and 9—were hosting an award-winning Web site, Spatulatta.com, in which they teach other kids cooking lessons via streaming video.
With the Spatulatta Cookbook coming out next month, the Gerasole sisters are the biggest stars of the kid cooking world—for now. The enormous number of children today who are curious about food have so many more opportunities than they did just a few years ago. There is Food Network, of course, where kids can watch cooking programs at any time of the day and dream of someday having their own show, like their heroes Emeril Lagasse or Giada De Laurentiis. Cooking schools and camps are specializing in classes for children, from the Kids Culinary Summer Camp of Vermont to Young Chefs Academy, which has 155 franchises. In the past, parents could only find miniaturized tools and baking pans for children that were little better than flimsy toys; now, companies are making tools really meant to be used in the kitchen, like Williams-Sonoma's recently expanded kids' line—serious, sturdy equipment like small-size whisks and cheese graters that have slightly blunted blades to prevent little fingers from getting scraped. And most importantly, perhaps, there is the trickle-down effect of the food revolution: As parents explore new cuisines, so do their kids, who get taken out to sushi places, bistros, even restaurants with tasting menus. A sign that serious food has become a generational lingua franca: This summer's animated movie Ratatouille—about a rat who wants to become a great chef—features a signature dish designed in real life by chef Thomas Keller. Naturally, a companion kids' cookbook was released at the same time.
Many kids may enjoy the movie, plus the occasional pizza-making session or birthday cooking class, and leave it at that. But there are more and more kids like the Gerasole girls, who are truly precocious in the kitchen. I talked to several of them to see how life for a creative kid cook these days is different than it was two-and-a-half decades ago, when I started cooking seriously.