CHICAGO — The first weekend in March was busy as usual for Jess Dawson.
She had her regular eight-hour shift Saturday in the kitchen at Spiaggia, and a cooking demo Sunday with pastry chef Gale Gand at the International Home and Housewares Show at McCormick Place.
Oh, and homework.
Dawson is a 17-year-old a high school junior with smiley eyes. She also is an aspiring pastry chef, intern to famed pastry chef Gale Gand and camera-toting blogger, with a Facebook friends list that reads like a "who's who of chefs," said her mom, Darcy Dawson.
Every Saturday, and some Friday afternoons, Dawson drives from her Libertyville home to Spiaggia, 980 N. Michigan Ave., where she helps make the desserts for the restaurant, its cafe and private dining room.
Since late January, she has been staging (working without pay, in culinary speak) on Sundays at the Little Goat Diner in the West Loop.
Dawson is the youngest person on the payroll at Spiaggia, a fact not lost on her.
"I can't really describe it, the first time I walked through the doors, to see everyone doing something and being this huge team," she said.
She brings a youthful jolt of enthusiasm, but that youthfulness isn't a hindrance, her boss said.
"Sometimes you worry, working with young people, that you'll have to hold their hand. Not with Jess," said Spiaggia's chef di cucina Chris Marchino. "She goes above and beyond, just being excited about being here, and she comes with her own ideas, too."
Like when Marchino asked the pastry team to rework the dolcini, or little desserts. The next day, "she came with a page of ideas," Marchino said.
On a recent Saturday morning, in one corner of the Spiaggia kitchen, Dawson made a big batch of applesauce, then moved on to rolling chocolate ganache into truffles and coating them in crushed cocoa nibs. Not very glamorous.
She paused to watch pastry chef Nicole Guini assemble a new dessert, chocolate tart with a walnut-cornmeal crust, candied walnuts and buttermilk gelato. They dug in with spoons, Dawson nodding quietly as Guini remarked on the sorbet's tanginess.
The day before, Dawson found out she had kidney stones. Tylenol was helping ease the stabbing pain in her sides for this shift, she said with a grin. She worked a full day, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
"She'd stay 16 hours, if I'd let her," Marchino said.
An Easy-Bake beginning
Dawson was that kid who cooked at her parents' knees as a toddler. (She and her twin brother have two younger brothers, and all like to help in the kitchen, Darcy Dawson said.)
The bulb on her Easy-Bake Oven broke, perhaps from overuse, when she was 7.
"I was so upset," she said. Rather than replace the toy, her mom suggested she switch to the real oven.
The first thing she made was key lime pie with meringue topping.
"I showed her how to do it one time, that's it," Darcy Dawson said.
At 13, Dawson got her first taste of rejection. She applied for a job at a Libertyville bakery.
"I called them like five times, and they hung up on me," she said.
The stars aligned a year later when she saw a sign at the bank for a book signing by Gand. She purposely waited to be last in line so she could introduce herself and ask Gand for advice about getting her foot in the pastry world's door.
"I said to find yourself a pastry chef to assist, whether it's doing dishes or schlepping stuff to the car or cutting up a thousand cream puffs," Gand said.
Dawson's reply: "Well, do you need someone?"
Doors keep opening in the three years Dawson has been schlepping for Gand, who she calls her "pastry mama."
Gand brought her onstage to assist during last year's National Restaurant Association show, where she met Sarah Grueneberg, Spiaggia's executive chef.
She has helped at two Housewares shows and numerous dinners, including at New York's James Beard House, where she met Louisiana chef John Folse — who offered her a full scholarship to his cooking school.
To raise money for a five-week trip to Italy last summer to take cooking classes, Dawson made cookies and sold them at Gand's events. She held similar pop-up bake sales at her school. She raised $2,000.
Gand is angling to get Jess on as a photo assistant for her forthcoming cookbook.
"I haven't told the photographer yet that she's only 17," Gand said. "I've sent her portfolio to him, but I haven't said, 'Oh, by the way, she's a child.'"
Photography, Dawson's other passion, could very well turn into a career, as it has for her mom.
Dawson's current self-directed project is baking and then photographing the recipes from Gand's book, "Chocolate and Vanilla." She writes about it on her blog, Livin' in the Kitchen, and posts photos on Gand's Facebook page.
"We kick it around — is she a photographer who does food, or is she a chef who does photography?" Gand said.
After high school
Dawson doesn't know that answer yet. She's still a kid who texts and giggles. She likes to bake barefoot, so much so that Gand has had to remind her to wear shoes in the kitchen.
"She's got a casualness about her, and that's the only thing," Gand said. "I worry people might not take her seriously, because she is so light-hearted."
Gand and others agree she has talent and drive beyond her years.
"She just sets her mind to something and plows through. That's her nature," said Darcy Dawson, who had to set a 9 p.m. end time to Dawson's weeknight baking, lest she pull an all-nighter (she would) or neglect schoolwork (she doesn't).
"Any chef would be lucky to have her around," Marchino said.
Dawson sought and was given permission from the school board for a shorter, four-period schedule for her senior year so she can pursue more culinary work.
She has her sights set on attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., after high school, despite Folse's generous offer.
"Honestly, I'd just like to do a normal thing," said the not-so-normal teen. "It's so normal for people to go to college, and I'd like to try it before I decide what to do."