The student news publication of Libertyville High School

Drops of Ink

The student news publication of Libertyville High School

Drops of Ink

The student news publication of Libertyville High School

Drops of Ink

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Jessica Dawson: Baking Her Way to the Top

Dawson is shown on a large screen as she performs a cooking demo with Gale Gand.

“Chefs are always a little quirky and scattered,” laughed senior Jessica Dawson, who prefers to go absolutely barefoot whenever possible and drives an extremely durable gold minivan.  However scattered her fun-loving personality may be, her life is most definitely in order.  At the young age of 17, she has worked or interned with two top-of-the-line restaurants in Chicago, cooked in Italy for five weeks over a summer, interned with a famous pastry chef, and achieved a whole lot more.  It’s not always easy, but that hasn’t once stopped her from doing anything and everything she could to go after her goals…and she’s still going strong every single day.

From the time she was very young, Dawson knew she loved to bake.  She would watch her grandma in the kitchen and recalls a particular instance when asked if she was allowed to use knives.  “Of course I am, grandma!” was her response, and as would be expected, it didn’t exactly end well.  Despite the cuts she got from using that knife for the first time, she always knew she had a passion for being in the kitchen and made a lemon meringue pie all by herself at just seven years of age.

“I was so proud of myself. It was something that I had done all on my own following the recipe and it actually came out really well!” Dawson said about her pie.

Like most young girls, Dawson owned an Easy Bake Oven and it quickly became a prized possession after she discovered her natural ability to create delicious desserts.

“When my Easy Bake Oven broke, it was one of the saddest days of my life.  Then my mom said, ‘Jess, you know we have a regular working oven in the kitchen, right?’  So I took her advice and started using that,” she said.

It soon became a hobby and something that she loved to do in her spare time.  Whether it was making simple chocolate chip cookies or complex cakes, Dawson attempted it all.  By the time she was 14, she knew that she had to do more than just bake in her free time in order to make her dreams of becoming a chef a reality.

“I went to a book signing for Rick Tramonto – he’s a professional chef and cookbook author – and I made sure I was last in line to meet him.  He gave me his business card, which his wife said he never gives out to anyone.  That really made me want to pursue cooking,” Dawson said.

A few months later, she saw a sign at her local bank for a cooking demonstration by famous pastry chef Gale Gand – the ex-wife of Rick Tramonto, oddly enough.  After meeting Gand, Dawson sent her a couple of emails asking if she needed any help with demonstrations.  Gand, who appreciated Dawson’s effort in pursuing her dreams, took Dawson under her wing and became a mentor to her.

“Gale has done so much for me.  She really got me to where I’m at today…I call her my pastry mama!  I can’t thank her enough,”  Dawson said.

In the following months, Dawson accompanied Gand to cooking demos and large events, such as the James Beard Dinner, which honors and promotes talented chefs and culinary hopefuls,  as well as the National Restaurant Association (NRA) show in Chicago – both of which are famous and highly acclaimed occasions.

At the NRA show in 2011, Dawson was introduced to a woman named Sarah Grueneberg, who happened to be the executive chef at Spiaggia, a high-class Italian restaurant on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.  Grueneberg invited her to stage at the restaurant – meaning Dawson would begin an unpaid internship and gain valuable experience in the kitchen of Spiaggia.  The staging turned into a paid job after the management saw how well she did, and Dawson became the youngest employee at the restaurant for a little over a year and a half.

“Spiaggia was such an awesome experience…I met so many great and talented people, and learned more than I ever could’ve anywhere else.  The other chefs and employees became my family and I was their baby.  I quit because I felt it was time to go somewhere else and do the same thing all over again,” Dawson said about her time as an employed chef.

During the summer of 2012, Dawson traveled to Italy for five weeks.  Italy is home to a multitude of experienced chefs as well as many cooking schools.  While there, she went to cooking school and learned the art of Italian cooking styles.  She worked with professional chefs and gained experiences that could not have been acquired any place else.  Those experiences were helpful as she returned back to work at Spiaggia, since it serves up Italian cuisine.  Dawson traveled with a group of Americans who came from all across the U.S. To raise money for her trip, which she paid for all by herself, she sold her baked goods to students, teachers, friends and family members.  The treats were obviously a hit and became very popular.

Recently, Dawson began staging at another restaurant called Grace in downtown Chicago.  It is currently an unpaid internship, so she will be gaining more experience in the kitchen there.  Grace is located on West Randolph Street, an area known to have high-class, up-and-coming restaurants.  She got this job after dining in the restaurant with a close friend.  While they were there, Dawson met Grace’s pastry chef, Bobby Schaffer, who invited her to come back and stage.  Currently, Dawson commutes to Grace on Saturdays, typically working from about noon until as late as 1:00 a.m.

“I love working at Grace!  It has the nicest kitchen I’ve ever worked in.  I’ve already learned so much and [the other employees] were really welcoming to me,” Dawson said.

The people that she has met along the way have all really impacted her.  Dawson says her family and friends have also been nothing but supportive.

“My parents have always supported my choices, which I’m really grateful for, even though I have pretty much taken over my mom’s kitchen and she doesn’t always like that!” Dawson said.

Her twin brother, Ryan, loves that his sister is accomplishing her goals.

“Jess has been so dedicated to her baking and it’s amazing to see how it has paid off for her,” Ryan said.  With the amount of effort that Dawson has put into everything she does, it’s obvious that she deserves all the success that comes her way.

Due to the fact that all of her work is located in downtown Chicago, Dawson had to request special arrangements for her school schedule.  She has been granted a work release from LHS, and is allowed to leave after fifth period – meaning she takes four academic classes plus gym. The school has been very understanding of what she does, which Dawson said she is thankful for.

Lately, Dawson has been working on creating a website on which she will sell her baked goods.  The money she makes off of her site will be 100% put towards her cooking career.  The website will be  Most of the money will be used for her second trip to Italy, which she plans on taking this summer.

“I really would love to go back to Italy this summer.  Gale has already helped me look for places to cook but I would go all by myself, which is really exciting,” Dawson said.

Besides using the website to sell her desserts, Dawson asked a coffee shop in Libertyville if they would consider selling a selection of her products.  The shop is called Hansa Coffee Roasters, located on Milwaukee Avenue near the train tracks.  They agreed to sell four of Dawson’s baked goods, including homemade lemon bars and brownies.  The items are already available for retail and are priced at $3 each.

Tom Maegdlin, the owner of Hansa Coffee, had nothing but good things to say about Dawson’s desserts as well as her professional approach.

“[Dawson’s] lemon bars had the best crust I’ve ever tasted…she picked up on all the business terms really quickly and knew exactly what I wanted.  She was easier to deal with than people who have had a lot of experience – more responsive and professional than bakers who have been doing this for 20 years,” Maegdlin said.

It’s clear that Dawson has worked at and visited really unique places, but her talents go far beyond that.  She cooked through an entire cookbook by Gale Gand called Chocolate and Vanilla, which consists of variations of desserts.  Aside from cooking and baking, Dawson takes professional-looking photographs of the food she prepares and eats.  She says that the inspiration came from her mother, who is a photographer.

Dawson’s favorite food to eat is Mexican cuisine — she recommends the restaurant called Xoco in Chicago for having delicious Mexican food, which is owned by famous chef Rick Bayless.  Dawson is not afraid to try new things when it comes to food because she appreciates the hard work and delicate details that go into preparing it.

So how did Dawson get to the point she’s at at such a young age?  According to her, it’s very simple.

“I think the reason I’m here is because I’m not afraid to fail.  At the end of the day, if the whiskey didn’t light on fire, at least I can say I tried to light it on fire, right?” Dawson said, referring to a time where a Julia Child recipe called for her to set fire to whiskey.

And although she’s had her share of letdowns, as anyone does, Dawson never loses sight of her current goal at hand.  From the beginning of her cooking career, she has done whatever was necessary to keep moving ahead.

As for her college plans, Dawson hopes to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.  It is a prestigious culinary school, and with the amount of experience she has behind her, she would surely fit right in.

Dawson says she isn’t sure where she’ll end up after college, but judging by how far she’s come already, she’s sure to become increasingly more talented as a culinary expert.  As for now, she is content with what she’s accomplished and plans to take things one step at a time.  That would, of course, be a barefoot step.


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The student news publication of Libertyville High School
Jessica Dawson: Baking Her Way to the Top