Chefs With Kids

(This was the cover story for the Jan/Feb 2001 issue of North Shore Magazine. The title under which the story ran was “What do You Think This is, A Restaurant?”—but that seemed a bit long for a blog title. Working on this story, I loved getting to see the interaction between the top chefs and their children.)

Standing tiptoe on an old, yellow, wooden kitchen chair, Natalie Cleland pours yeast into a large bowl containing flour, which her brother, Desmond, standing beside her on an identical chair, has just measured. The two children wriggle and jostle each other in their excitement. With help from mom, chef Peggy Ryan, Natalie, who is three, adds olive oil to the mixture. It’s almost dinner time, and this happy trio is making pizza.

Five-year-old Desmond (five-and-a-half, he corrects) wants to push the “on” button as soon as mom has loaded the Cuisinart with chunks of Parmesan cheese. When asked if he likes to cook, he responds swiftly and emphatically, “yes.” In fact, he wants to become a chef. Natalie simply wants to push the “off” button. Peggy shepherds the two youngsters through the process, mists their hands with vegetable oil so the dough won’t stick, turns on the oven, prepares the pizza stone.

Peggy, who recently sold her successful Evanston restaurant, Va Pensiero, and has now turned her talents to teaching, is obviously pleased with the children’s enthusiasm. Food is important to her. It’s important to her husband, Roger Cleland, as well, though he works on the business side of the restaurant world.
Of course, it comes as no surprise that a successful chef would be interested in food. But how do chefs get their children interested? How do they integrate food as work with food as part of family life?

Sharing the Adventure
“When it comes to getting children interested in food, participation is the key,” Peggy observes. “I grew up cooking with my mom, so it seemed natural to involve my children in cooking.” Peggy grew up on a farm in downstate Illinois, where she was the youngest of six children. As was true of a lot of farm families, money was tight. “We baked a lot. We canned vegetables. We created a lot of things from scratch just out of necessity,” Peggy relates.

Desmond, who started kindergarten this year, pops back into the kitchen, checks the dough, and worries out loud that it hasn’t risen enough. Peggy reassures him that it’s fine. As Desi rolls out the dough, Natalie watches patiently, but makes it clear that adding the sauce will be her privilege.

The kitchen is not particularly large or modern. Comfortably homey, it looks wonderfully used, with abundant evidence of family, from a refrigerator door covered in kids’ art and photos to Desmond’s science experiment for school (an egg turning an unfortunate shade of brown in a jar of vinegar) on the kitchen table. There is evidence, too, of a lot of cooking, from well-broken-in utensils to the seasoned pizza stone.

“The kids used to visit the restaurant,” Peggy says, “but we could only cook together once or twice a week. Now, I’m home more often, and I like to cook for them, because I know they’re eating well.”

She adds that, aside from being a fun family activity, involving the children in cooking gets them to try new things. “I’m always testing new recipes, and I let the kids help me. Recently, I made Parmesan corn cakes. It’s not something Desi would eat if I just put them on his plate, but because he helped me cook them, he couldn’t wait to try them.

“It’s not always easy to get them to eat,” Peggy continues. “They are children, after all. But we have a rule: You have to take at least one bite. If you don’t like it, that’s okay, but you do have to try it. They’re sensitive to strong tastes, which is common for children. Natalie is the more adventurous of the two. Desi is pretty much a meat and potatoes guy, but he likes any meat, including lamb and duck.” (Desmond perks up and interjects, “I love duck.”)

Youthful interest in food doesn’t surprise Peggy. She knew from the time she was thirteen that she wanted to be a chef, and as a teen, she began working at the best restaurant in the small town of Tonica. The owner, whom Peggy describes as ahead of his time, constantly tried to introduce new foods. “It was a wonderful experience. I learned a lot, and it’s where I gained my speed.” She moved to Chicago when she was nineteen, with thoughts of going to cooking school, but there was abundant work in Chicago’s kitchens. Peggy says, “In the restaurant business, if you work hard and don’t complain, you’ll do well.”

The pizza is ready, and the action moves to the dining room. Despite the hardwood floors and mahogany furniture, the room is warm and comfortable. The table is adorned with an arrangement of Indian corn, which Peggy’s mom, who still lives near the farm, sends each autumn. Peggy says that the family always eats together, and usually eats in the dining room. “There’s no other way to teach table manners than to sit with the children while they eat,” Peggy explains. “Also, if they see you eating different things, they’re more likely to try new things themselves.”

About ninety percent of the family’s meals are home-cooked, but not all are cooked by Peggy; Roger shares kitchen duties with her. “My husband is a great cook,” Peggy relates. “He usually cooks from his mother’s repertoire, things like pot roast or leg of lamb on the grill. We use the grill until it snows.” Peggy says that, because she’s busy, she relies on one-dish or slow-cook items, like osso bucco and lamb shanks. But if there just isn’t time to cook, she says their favorite carry-out meal is roast chicken from Dominick’s or Boston Market (“We love their creamed spinach.”).

Addressing specifically the issue of educating children about food, Peggy underscores the importance of having them involved in the whole process. “The more separated one is from the process, the less likely one is to be interested,” she says. “I believe that much of the problem with people’s eating habits these days is that they’re so removed from creating food.” Peggy takes the kids with her shopping, and involves them in picking out food, as well as in preparing it. She loves taking them to the farmers market. “Things smell better, and the children will often try new fruits or vegetables because they’ve helped pick them out, and even talked to the farmers.”

But Peggy is practical, too. “I realize that, sometimes, dinner is something you go through so you can get to dessert. I make sure they eat well, but after that, I let the kids decide what they can handle. If they don’t like something, I just let it go. I want it to be nice for them. They try everything, and like so many things, that I can relax about the things they don’t like. I do think that it’s important to push kids to try things, but not to push them if they don’t like it.”

It’s time for a story, and Natalie picks one that is about counting—and food. She climbs into Peggy’s lap, and points out that the number ten is for ten pies, and pies are her favorite food. Desmond is in the next room, reading by the fire with his father. It’s clear that food is important, but that family is the real focus. Food is just one of the joys of life, and nothing makes food better than having someone to share it with.

Family Matters
Emily and Katie Lovell hide behind daddy’s wing-backed chair eating potato chips. They pop out occasionally to get a hug, to show off a Barbie doll, or to comment on a staff member of daddy’s restaurant. Daddy is chef Jay Lovell, son of astronaut Jim Lovell and chef/owner of Lovell’s of Lake Forest, a restaurant notable both for its outstanding cuisine and its extensive collection of NASA memorabilia.

Though his talent as a chef is considerable, this is not Jay’s first career. For ten years, he was a graphic artist in Houston. He’d been thinking about a change, however, and when recession hit Texas in the ‘80s, it seemed like the time to switch. “I’d seen ads for Kendall College,” Jay says. “My dad encouraged me to go for it. I moved to Chicago, entered Kendall, and loved it. I got straight A’s—for the first time in my life!”

Kendall gave him more than a great culinary education. While there, Jay met Darice Alexander, Assistant Director of Admissions. A few years after graduation, and after his externship with Bernard Crétier at Le Vichyssois, Jay proposed to Darice.

Jay worked in a number of restaurants, including a stellar six years at the Deer Path Inn. “I consider Bernard Crétier my mentor,” Jay says. “His style is simple, elegant, clean. But I learned a lot at each restaurant.”

Starting a family preceded starting his own restaurant by several years. Emily is 6, Katie is 2-1/2, the restaurant is 1-1/2. “I had a full year to bond with Katie before the restaurant opened,” Jay relates happily. Both girls think that it’s wonderful that daddy is a chef, though Katie is more likely to simply say that daddy works in the kitchen. And Emily and Katie love visiting daddy at work.

Darice makes sure the girls see a lot of daddy’s restaurant. Her father owned the popular Alexander’s Steak House in the South Shore area, so she has known since childhood how many hours go into making a restaurant successful. “But my dad passed away when I was thirteen,” Darice relates. “I’ve known Jay’s dad longer than I knew my own father. Because of that, we go to the restaurant a lot, to see Jay as much as possible.”

Jay says that it’s Darice who feeds the family. “I love to barbecue if I’m home, and on my day off we’ll try to cook something nice, but if I’m working, I’m just not here.”

Darice relates that, as soon as the girls could handle solid food, she began introducing different vegetables, increasing variety. “We try to keep it fun and interesting,” Darice says. “We focus on what’s healthful, but we let them have popular items, too.” She adds that food education is like all education—when it appears, you explain it.

Jay says that they don’t force the girls to eat. “If they say they’re full, we believe them.” Darice adds, “The girls aren’t finicky. Because we started them early, they’ll try just about anything. They love French food, and they love Kraft macaroni and cheese. But sometimes they surprise you. They both love feta cheese and olives, but neither will drink soda pop.”

“Our attitudes toward food have definitely affected the girls’ attitudes,” Jay notes. “Emily was three weeks old when we first took her to a restaurant. Darice’s cousin, Jim, owns Pegasus in Greektown, so the girls have grown up with Greek food. Emily loves watching cooking shows on TV, and tries to cook every chance she gets. When she was three years old, we were watching the cooking channel, and she saw a croquembouche—an elaborate French pastry tower—being made, and she asked if we could make one together. So we did.”

There are two dining areas in the Lovell home: a coolly elegant dining room and a warmer eating area off the large, bright kitchen. The long, wooden kitchen table, which sits in front of a sliding glass door overlooking the back yard, is where most family meals are eaten. The dining room is usually saved for birthdays and holidays, though it is used with increasing frequency as the girls get older. However, Jay is quick to state that the girls are comfortable in formal situations. “When we dress them up, they understand what that means. We can take them to a nice restaurant, and they know how to behave.”

Family life spills over into the restaurant. When Jay’s dad, Jim Lovell, is in town, he’s at the restaurant, talking to customers. The children’s menu is titled “Emily and Katharine’s Favorites,” and offers kid classics like grilled cheese and chicken fingers. It’s a nice place for families. It’s a great place for food. And for the Lovells, family and food is a combination that works well.

Getting it From Both Sides
In the middle of a toy-filled living room that is obviously his, and only steps from the bright, open kitchen, cheerful, blond, four-year-old Gio Tramonto leans back comfortably in a child-size easy chair and reels off a list of things he likes to make: cookies, scrambled eggs, pancakes, fried matzo, salami and eggs, fresh-squeezed orange juice. “I like cooking,” he says softly but with conviction. Gio’s parents, Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand, partners in Northfield’s Brasserie T and Chicago’s highly-acclaimed Tru, are glad.

“He knows to level the flour when he’s measuring it,” Gale notes with pride. “There are adults who don’t know to do that.”

“Gio showed me how Gale taught him to carry a knife point down,” Rick relates. “I’ve taught him to curl his fingers under while cutting, as a chef would, which he practices when slicing bananas for breakfast. He’s serious about getting it right. I guess that’s just the result of having two chefs as parents.”

Rick and Gale agree that sharing their time and interests with Gio has had the biggest impact on his willingness to try things. Rick says that Gio has had foie gras and caviar, and Gale relates that he had his first taste of goat cheese when he was nine months old. “If he doesn’t like something, I don’t worry about it,” Gale states. “He eats a really balanced diet, and he loves most vegetables, so we don’t force anything on him. Of course, because he takes considerable pride in trying everything once, we’ve never really had a problem with him.”

Busy schedules (running two restaurants, writing cookbooks, consulting, and, in Gale’s case, creating a TV show for cable’s Food Network) and, more recently, separate lives, mean that Gale and Rick have to intentionally make time for Gio.

“Sunday is a big day for Gio and me,” Rick relates. We’ll make a big plate of pasta with red sauce. We’ll make meatballs. For dinner, we may go out, or may spend time with friends after church.”

Rick was raised in upstate New York, and the traditional Italian food served by his family shaped his food ideas. It was, he says, “gutsy and honest food, from the soul and from tradition.” He realizes that childhood memories and family traditions come through in his cooking, both at home and in the restaurant, and it’s important to him to pass along traditions and food ideas to his son. He also notes that travel, living and working in Europe for four years, and having had the good fortune to work with some of the world’s best chefs, while influencing his work, have also contributed to what he’ll pass on to Gio.

Rick observes that trust and respect are key. “Gio trusts us, and he sees what we’re eating, and he wants to try it. He knows we won’t let him do anything that’ll hurt him. We work to teach him to respect the food, to respect how it’s made, and to respect each other and the time it takes to create home-cooked food. Once we’ve committed to cooking something, it’s what we’re eating. We’re teaching him not to waste, teaching him balance—or at least we’re trying. Of course, there are days you can’t please a four-year-old. On those days, he can choose a bowl of cereal, or he can choose nothing, if he doesn’t want to eat.”

The respect for food starts with shopping. “It’s a matter of training,” Rick explains. “You show your child how to make selections. But make the lessons appropriate—at four, you let him smell an orange, but you don’t try to explain the difference between prime and choice meat.” Rick says that he feels that focusing on preparation is important, but dinner can be more relaxed. “Sometimes we sit at the table and have proper glassware and china, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we talk, but last night we watched Toy Story 2. I try to keep the experience varied and fun.”

Gale is a North Shore native, and though her success has taken her to New York and Europe, she’s happy to be back in this area, living near her father, Bob Gand. She had planned to be an artist, and studied silver and goldsmithing at college. However, she took a year off to work in a restaurant and discovered that food was the art form that suited her most.

Gale’s turn to pastry wasn’t entirely surprising. She recalls making pies with her mother. “My mom would make lattice pie crusts, which are a lot of work. When she baked, she’d make me my own little pie, so I do that with Gio, too. She used to say that we didn’t have green thumbs for gardening, but we had white thumbs for baking.” Gale relates that, one time, she asked Gio if he’d like to watch her make a pie. He said he’d rather help. “I’m using my great grandma’s rolling pin, and I’ve got my arms around Gio, helping him roll the dough, and I’m almost in tears because this is so lovely.”

Gio has been in Montessori since age two. He loves making cookies for special occasions at school. He’s also expected to bring a snack once a week. “It can be hard for me not to feel a little competitive,” admits Gale, whom some critics have called the best pastry chef in Chicago. “I realize these are children, but I sometimes feel like I have to send something really special. Of course, when I was working on my most recent cookbook, I did send elaborate treats. But I try not to get too carried away.”

Gio listens quietly, staying close to his mother. But that changes when Nikki, the au pair who helps care for Gio, appears with lunch. Gale has prepared garlic spinach with meatballs, and Gio pounces on it when Nikki places it, along with a big glass of milk, on the little Winnie the Pooh table near the window.

Gale says that, for breakfast, she often joins Gio at this table. She is petite enough to not look awkward perched on the little, plastic chair adorned with Eeyore’s portrait. For other meals, however, they eat in the dining room, so Gio is comfortable with “proper” dining.

Her busy life often involves entertaining, and Gio interacts well with guests, but Gale says that she works hard to get alone-time with Gio. “We’re lucky,” Gale notes. “Because Rick and I are self-employed, we can change our hours to be with Gio.”

The time Gale and Rick spend sharing their passion for food with Gio —whether it’s gourmet fare or hotdogs at the ballpark—has born fruit. “Just the other day,” Gale relates delightedly, “Gio came to me and said, ‘I thought of a new idea for you. How about scallops in tomato sauce.’ He loves feeling involved, and he loves food.” It must run in the family.

You Get What You Work For
While their lives and situations differ, Peggy, Jay, Gale, and Rick understand that you get out what you put in. Letting their children know that they’re loved and sharing with them their own delight in the culinary arts has resulted in children who enjoy food, enjoy cooking, and enjoy their parents.

As Rick Tramonto observes, “You get what you choose to work at—good table manners, eating well, sharing. There will be ups and downs, but the final result you get is what you’ve decided to work for.”

Love, sharing, work, trust, and respect—certainly sounds like a good recipe for passing along traditions from parent to child, whatever those traditions may be.

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