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.
I grew up in the 1970s and '80s, and all I knew was what I read—besides the occasional Julia Child show on television, I didn't have anything but books and magazines (and my mother) to learn from. The Gerasole girls have so many more resources available to them—and it shows. On their Webcasts, Belle and Liv (as they call themselves) work with guest stars like 10-year-old Gio Tramonto, the son of Chicago chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand, demonstrating recipes from around the world. Most of them aren't obviously kids' recipes but foods that could be served to the whole family, including a spaghetti frittata; Armenian börek, a cheesy strudel-like dish; and nian gao, a sticky-sweet Chinese rice cake. A large part of Spatulatta's charm comes from the feeling that Liv and Belle—who are inclined to improvise sound effects and one-liners as they cook—are learning themselves as they make the recipes. "I wonder what it tastes like," says Liv, as she holds up a heart of palm in one segment. "Mmm, it tastes good," she says. "Kind of sour, but good." That DIY spirit has spread to the Web site's blog, where the sisters share recipes that avid kid cooks send them. The recipes tend to be simple but action-packed, with lots of smashing and whizzing in the food processor.
Like all the kids I spoke with, the girls' enthusiasm for cooking comes in no small part from their food-loving family. Liv describes being reeled into the kitchen years ago when their father, Vince Gerasole, a television reporter and food critic, invited her to make fresh pasta with him. "We used a machine called a Pasta Queen, which flattens out the dough, and then we cut it into little strips," she says. "And then I just wanted to keep on cooking."
Today, cooking and having a developed palate have become hallmarks of a well-rounded child—their curiosity about food suggests a broader curiosity about culture. Parents also want to be able to keep doing the things they did before they had kids, like eating out and traveling. At seven, Joseph Weissler from Evanston, Illinois, has traveled through Europe extensively with his parents. When he was in France just after his first birthday, Joe tried his first Camembert, ripe and runny—a challenge for many American adults. But he loved it, and still does. And, if forced to make the choice between a nice oozy Camembert and some cookies, he says he'd choose the Camembert. Joe is also a fan of crumbly blue cheeses, raw clams, octopus and "pig nose," which his mother explains is a headcheese-like preparation he had in France. Although it's clear his parents encourage him to try new things, Joe is incredibly confident about what he likes to eat—and how. He cocks one elbow high as he demonstrates his mussel-eating technique, which he picked up at age four on the Normandy coast: He uses an empty mussel shell to scoop another mussel out of its shell. Now, back home in Evanston, he can polish off a bucketful of moules all by himself.
Kids don't necessarily seek out kid food. Cooking and eating are one of the first things they can do just like an adult, before they can even talk. Growing up, I liked the power that came with feeding my family, and as the youngest in a houseful of hyperarticulate people, it was a triumph to momentarily stop conversation as everyone enjoyed something delicious. Eating well or cooking a meal is a way to impress grown-ups and gives a child a way to be more grown up.
Caleb Raible-Clark, for example, a 15-year-old Seattle high-schooler, grew out of his kids' cooking classes several years ago. "I'd rather be cooking with people a lot more experienced than myself," he says, so at 12, he started apprenticing at a restaurant. His parents were regulars at the French-inspired Madison Park Cafe, and chef Brian O'Connor invited Caleb to help out in the kitchen. Caleb started off peeling a lot of potatoes, but he worked his way up to attending the kitchen's garde-manger and pastry stations. He kept showing up at the restaurant after school even though he didn't get paid—and even though O'Connor made him write papers on food trends and traditions. "I could never break him, and I never upset him—he's got a grown-up sense and a backbone to him," says O'Connor, who is now the executive chef at Laurel in San Diego. Indeed, Caleb sounds a lot older than 15 when he describes how much he likes being part of a restaurant rush, "with four or five people cooking at once and everyone extremely busy, but it's all flowing."
Caleb has his sights set on being a chef, a career I never seriously considered as a child. As much fun as cooking was for me, it was a little embarrassing, too. My high school guidance counselor noted my skills in the "domestic arts," which made me angry—I didn't want someone looking at me solely as a future homemaker. Today, there are so many more role models in the food world—not just chefs but entrepreneurs and media stars. Food Network has introduced plenty of recipes to the nation, but it has also shown ambitious kids a possible career path.
Chandler Knott, an 11-year-old from Durham, North Carolina, hopes to have a cooking show someday: "I love to watch the Food Network, and you think, as a kid, how exciting that would be." Chandler is a culinary intern who teaches other students—often older than herself—at C'est Si Bon, a Chapel Hill cooking school for kids run by Dorette Snover, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. "I've always been very interested in being a pediatrician," says Chandler, "but now that I've been seriously exposed to cooking, I think, Oh, wow, that would be a really exciting career to go into." She first learned to cook Southern classics by her grandmother's side, and when she was nine, she was the one who suggested that the C'est Si Bon culinary camp might be the best way to spend her summer. Chandler particularly appreciates that Snover does not oversimplify her curriculum, but challenges kids to try ambitious foods: "The recipes aren't all macaroni and cheese and spaghetti. They use all fresh ingredients, foreign ingredients even."
Some cynics might suggest that the rise of the young foodie is another symptom of the overprogrammed child—an attempt to create mini adults who can eat sashimi and impress potential colleges with their mille-feuillemaking skills. But that's an awfully negative read. The parents I spoke with were delighted that their children had found an independent, creative realm of their own, and the kids all proved to be remarkably self-motivated. Chandler comes home after spending all day preparing food at C'est Si Bon and cooks for her family as well, tweaking a recipe when she thinks it needs a little fine-tuning. "I don't get tired of it," she says. "When you have a passion for something, it's one of those things you don't get tired of." Some things might have changed over the decades, but that drive to cook still comes from the core.
Sara Dickerman is the food editor of Seattle magazine and a contributor to Slate and the New York Times Magazine.