I feel the need to pre-empt this blog post by letting you know a little bit about what kind of person I am. I am one of those people who is honest and can’t even tell the tiniest of white lies without feeling pangs of guilt for days to follow. I don’t promote things that I don’t believe in, but when there is something I wholeheartedly believe in, I will sing its praises to colossal proportions. I tell you this now because I want you to know that all of the admiration I pour over the kids’ and teen classes in this blog post is 100% sincere, despite how over-the-top some of my claims may seem.
I had the pleasure of spending all of the summer of 2015 teaching the kids and teen cooking camps alongside some colleagues. I have also taught a good number of the individual kids’ and teen classes we have had since, and also served as an instructor for the winter mini camps just a few weeks back. My job is especially fun on these days, because they are days of hanging out in the kitchen with some pretty cool kids, and teaching them a thing or two about cooking along the way.
The kids’ classes serve an age range of 7-11 years old, and the teen classes serve an age range of 12-16 years old. In my opinion, this age range of 7-16 is the coolest of all of them to teach. Their minds soak up information like a sponge. It’s an age of development where they are starting to figure out who they are and who they want to become as people, and it’s pretty neat to be privy to even a small part of that. Kids in this age range also have an incredible energy that, when channeled positively, can result in some pretty amazing things.
In an effort to keep it fresh for those students that have become regulars, and yet retain a variety of skills for new students looking to learn, we've got some exciting news here at The Chopping Block! The kids’ and teen summer camp menus have been completely overhauled! The new line-up is already available for viewing (and sign-up) on the June through August calendars, and I definitely think it’s worth a look. The new menus are inspiring, balanced, and rather crave-inducing, if you ask me.
Switching up an entire summer’s worth of curriculum is not something that happens overnight. A lot of care and thought goes into creating the perfect menus, not just for our kids’ and teen classes, but for all of the adult curriculum as well. The mastermind that leads this charge is our very own Curriculum Coordinator, Chef Sara Salzinski. Myself and a couple other names you might recognize from their class instruction or their blog posts (Chef Erin Patsiopoulos and Chef Carrie Bradley) had the privilege of being part of the development process for the new kids’ and teen camp menus. We served as a sounding board and helped provide additional inspiration for Sara as we brainstormed loads of possibilities that could fill the days of our campers.
The questions I was asking myself when helping think up the perfect week-by-week menus include things like:
- Is it enough to do in the time allotted? Is it too much to do?
- Will a variety of skills and cooking techniques be learned throughout the week?
- Is the menu balanced?
- Are the kids’ recipes safe enough for the younger ones to execute? Along with this, can all ingredients be cut with a butter knife, a bench scraper, or broken down on a cheese grater?
- Can the menu be accomplished on one stovetop, so it is easily translatable back to home kitchens?
- Is there a balance of proteins throughout the week to give the students exposure to a variety of meats?
- Are many of the recipes easily altered to accommodate common food allergies?
These are just a small number of considerations that come up when planning the curriculum. I was only a contributor in a small part of a much larger process, but I believe this goes to show just how much thought goes into creating such a superb offering of classes.
If the announcement of the new menus isn’t exciting enough, there is another wonderful change to this coming summer’s teen camp! There were so many days this last summer that I felt like the spirits of the teenagers were willing and interested in learning more, but then we were cut short due to the time constraints of the class. Those days are now gone. The timing of the teen camp portion has now been extended by an extra 30 minutes every day this summer! The teens will be able to get even more out of their day now as we will now have even more time to explore the details of the cooking techniques being taught, and we can delve even further into the wonderfully intelligent questions they ask on the daily.
Something really nice about our cooking camps that is unlike other summer camps is that the camps do not have to be taken consecutively. In fact, if you've only got time for one of the three, you can just sign up for one. For those that are new and looking at the kids’ and teen camps for the first time, let me spend a little time telling you what a day in the life of a camper looks like. Let’s start by delving into the teen camp, since this is how our morning starts out:
- Day One
- Introduction to the kitchen and the rules
- Kitchen safety
- How to work clean
- Knife skills lesson
- Put that knife skills lesson to good use, and start cooking
- Learning the importance of tasting and seasoning your food
- Days Two – Four
- Reinforcement of the basics learned on day one
- Cook a multitude of recipes that portray a variety of cooking skills that cover a range of things like: sautéing, braising, frying, roasting, creating emulsions, making a roux, working with dough, and so on
- Planning menus for Day Five
- Day Five
- Iron Chef Competitive Cooking Day! This is my favorite day as an instructor for the teen camps. This is a day where we let the students’ imaginations run wild, and they have the opportunity to cook whatever they want. It’s amazing to see the blossoming of their skill-set throughout the week and to see it culminate into some pretty amazing and unique things on Day 5. My heart swells with pride as we count down their last 30 seconds of cooking time, and they race past with their final creations to place them on the judge’s table.
A group of students working as a team to make homemade ravioli. Pasta days are a big favorite for the students and will continue to be enjoyed in 2016 with some delicious new recipes to look forward to.
The kids cooking camps have a nearly identical flow, with the following exceptions:
- The kids’ camp does not include a 5th day, so there are not any discussions as far as Iron Chef planning is concerned.
- In place of a knife skills lesson, more concentration is placed on how to properly measure wet ingredients versus dry ingredients. Most knife work done in the kids’ classes is by use of a butter knife, bench scraper, or cheese grater.
- On days where the kids have been especially efficient in their cooking, we use that extra time to play fun games that lead to some extra learning at the end of the day (i.e. how to identify different herbs and spices).
Class sizes max out at 12 students for the kids’ camps and 16 students for the teen camps. With two instructors in each class, it means a lot of personalized attention for the students. With the classes almost always being at max capacity during the summer, the teens are typically split into four groups of four, and the kids are split into two groups of six. If friends come to class together, we always make an effort to get them grouped together. The summer camps have also proven to be an enjoyable bonding experience for siblings working on the same team (or can become a playful household rivalry if they choose to work on separate teams)!
I have mentioned the incredible talents of these kids a couple times now, but now I think it’s time I show you just what it is that I have the opportunity of witnessing as an instructor for the kids’ and teen programming. ALL of the food photos in this blog came from the works of those in the kids’ and teen classes from this last summer. The beautiful presentation of the food also came from these genius, young minds.
Beautiful presentation of one group’s tres leches cake.
Stunning sushi arrangement put together by one of the students.
Delicious seafood paella made by a talented group of teens. Shrimp and chorizo paella is now one of the many tasty treats to look forward to on the new kids’ camp menu.
After seeing the incredible work product these kids put out, it might be hard to believe that they aren’t all just a bunch of young cooking prodigies gracing our kitchens for the summer. But you might be surprised to hear that these are, for the most part, your everyday kids that might do a little bit here and there to help mom in the kitchen (mostly on the level of helping bake cookies on occasion). There are definitely some stand-outs from time to time that have taken cooking on as a passionate hobby they spend considerable time on, but most of our young students are just your regular, everyday kid that needs a camp or two to fill a part of their summer days.
These kids are fearless and are always taking things to a whole new level. Instead of stopping short at figuring out what filling to put in a pre-made cannoli shell, these teens are thinking, why don't we just make the cannoli shells too?
I have learned and continue to learn so much in working with these kids. Fortune cookies from scratch and homemade cannoli shells were not things that were previously in my repertoire of things I had previously cooked, but after such interesting suggestions like that come up in the Iron Chef brainstorming process, you do your research and come ready to teach these kids how to get it done.
A not-so-subliminal message in a homemade fortune cookie, working to sway the decision of the Iron Chef judge.
Kugel isn’t something I had tasted before this summer, but after one team put it together on Iron Chef Day, I was able to take my taste buds on an interesting new journey of a very intriguing sweet and savory dish.
Kugel with a subtle cinnamon heart, making for a beautifully presented dish.
The biggest thing I have learned in working with this age group is to not sell these kids short. They surprised and impressed me time and time again with what they came in knowing and how quickly they would master things that even the adult home cook can struggle with. Campers can come home and not only share some of their leftovers from what they cooked that day, but maybe even teach mom, dad, brother or sis a thing or two about what they learned. Don't underestimate these kids, as it is truly astounding how much they can accomplish.
The energy of these kids is amazing and makes it really fun going in everyday when you know you've got such a rewarding day to look forward to. Not to mention that fact that they are incredibly respectful.
After a testimonial such as this, it probably doesn’t surprise you to hear that I grow rather fond of the kids every week, so it's always sad to have to say our goodbyes on the last day of camp, especially when they continue to floor me with their shows of respect and thanks in the form of handshakes, words of gratitude, and requests to take pictures together before departing. While these goodbyes are sad, it's pretty neat when I get repeat students and get to greet them with familiarity when I see them browsing the store with their parents or in for one of the weekend classes that are held throughout the year. Not only are students making those connections with their instructors, but they also have the opportunity to make all sorts of friends while working with the other students in the kitchen.
Get them started early while their brains are susceptible to soaking in new bits of knowledge. The things they learn in these camps are life skills that will continue to be useful to them even into their older years. You can drool over the new kids’ and teen camp menus here and sign up your child on each individual camp on our calendar. If your tots are not quite of age to start the kids’ classes – don’t fret! We like to get the young ones cooking as early as age 3, starting with our Tater Tots kids cooking classes.