"Sepia and Longman & Eagle are some of my favorite places to eat,” says Thor Graham, a Roscoe Village resident whom servers know by name and chefs invite on kitchen tours. “One of my favorite dishes is the cassoulet from Kiki’s Bistro; it’s sometimes made with duck, and it tastes great when it’s cold out.” When he’s not dining around town or discussing sustainable food, Graham likes playing kickball during recess.
The spirited seven-year-old, who rattles off a list of Chicago restaurants that serve grass-fed-beef burgers just as easily as he discusses his newest Wii game, belongs to an emerging society of pintsize gourmands. With sophisticated palates and a keen interest in food, these “koodies” are infiltrating the dining scene and dismissing fried chicken strips in favor of foie gras.
“A lady came in the other day and told me her three-year-old had read that Ria was a great restaurant and was upset that she couldn’t dine here,” says Jason McLeod, the executive chef of Balsan and Ria, the two restaurants at the Elysian. (Only children who are guests at the hotel may eat in the upscale dining room.) Black Dog Gelato’s owner, Jessie Oloroso, sees kids come in asking for gelato instead of ice cream—and actually knowing the difference. “They really do care, they’re paying attention, and they’re willing to try new flavors, no matter what’s in there,” Oloroso says.
What’s fueling this new crop of gastronomes? McLeod says foodies breed koodies. “We’re seeing more and more kids like this in the Midwest: the children of well-educated individuals who are involved in the farm-to-plate thing,” he explains. As Chicagoans become increasingly interested in the origin and preparation of their meals, their kids follow suit; the next thing you know, little locavores like Graham are spending summertime Saturdays exploring the Green City Market instead of watching cartoons.
Even if Mom and Dad aren’t laying the groundwork, Junior may still go gourmet. Between local initiatives and school programs bolstering healthy, sustainable living and the Food Network’s splashy programming, kids continually ingest foodcentric messages. McLeod himself nurtures koodies through educational activities—like a recent healthy-cooking demo at a French immersion school and teaching students to cook pizza in Balsan and Ria’s wood-fired oven. He also encourages epicurious young Elysian guests to tour his kitchen.
As budding diners’ tastes evolve, dedicated kids’ menus are growing scarce. Instead of presenting the typical grease-laden finger foods, places like Ria and Balsan simply serve juniors miniature portions of regular menu items. Likewise, Oloroso concocts flavors for adult palates, knowing food-savvy kids aren’t intimidated by a little goat cheese in their gelato. “There are still plenty of choices for kids. They just may not be so obvious,” she says. “Kids know they like vanilla and chocolate, so they end up trying malted vanilla and Mexican hot chocolate.”
“We love that kids are so into this,” says McLeod. “Because the more educated our guests, no matter how old they are, the more challenged we are as chefs.” So next time you encounter a kid like Thor Graham at Ria, you may want to lean over and thank him for keeping chefs on their toes. And ask for his meal recommendation.
Illustration: Tonwen Jones/colagene.com