Summer camps around the country find high demand for cooking classes

Zachary Baker, 6, stirs apple carrot muffin batter during the Deliciously Nutritious culinary camp on June 17 in Danielsville, Md. Jamie C. Horton, The Associated Press


Zachary Baker, 6, stirs apple carrot muffin batter during the Deliciously Nutritious culinary camp on June 17 in Danielsville, Md. Jamie C. Horton, The Associated Press

By Kristen Wyatt

DANIELSVILLE, Md. – Drop the s’more and take that hot dog off the stick – one of the hottest trends in summer camp has kids whipping up haute cuisine.

From rec-department lunchbox cooking classes to $2,650-a-week chef training for teens, camps nationwide are offering cooking alongside – sometimes in place of – canoeing and other more traditional camp activities.

“All of a sudden, everyone’s interested in cooking,” said Melissa Owens, a former restaurant owner who started the Deliciously Nutritious camp this summer in suburban Maryland. Her first session filled up with 11 kids, ages 6 to 11, without even being listed in the county’s initial camp guide.

Leading the kids through the final touches of apple-carrot-flaxseed muffins, Owens asks the kids what recipes they want to learn before camp is over, and there’s not a grilled cheese in the bunch. These kids can julienne and whip their own cream, and they’ve got plans to make chocolate mousse and crepes.

“I want to be a chef,” declares 10-year-old Asya Proctor, whose grandmother signed her up for the camp because Asya calls Food Network star Rachael Ray her “hero.”

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“Cooking’s, like, challenging. But fun,” Proctor said.

The camps are part of an overall trend of children becoming serious consumers of foodie culture. The microwave generation is giving way to children raised on the Food Network and celebrity chefs.

“Kids are really interested in food,” says Hilleary Kehrli, spokeswoman for kitchen good retailer Williams-Sonoma, which started a line of cooking tools for children last year.

“They’re seeing it on TV, and it continues the tradition of kids learning to cook from their parents and grandparents,” says Kehrli, whose company also offers cooking classes for kids. “We’ve really seen a big push for it.”

The kids’ interest has caught even some professional chefs off guard.

“I don’t know if it’s the Food Network or what, but there are kids that show up already knowing how to make a hollandaise sauce, and 10 years ago, they wouldn’t even know what that was,” said Kelly Dietrich, founder of Kids Culinary Cooking Camp in Highgate, Vt., where parents spend up to $2,650 a week to send their kids to learn advanced techniques.

The sleepover camp started five years ago for boys and girls ages 10 to 16, and it’s so popular the camp started this summer offering higher-end skills such as growing shiitake mushrooms and raising seafood. “We’ve seen a huge growth in interest” and campers coming from as far away as South Africa and Japan, Dietrich said.

The trend has been noticed by traditional summer camps where culinary skills once were limited to roasting weiners or marshmallows over a fire.

“Many of our camps are adding cooking as an elective,” said Peg Smith, CEO of the Indiana-based American Camp Association, which includes 2,600 camps. “Kids are definitely concerned about nutrition. Cooking is a great opportunity to have fun with your friends. And you get to eat what you make. It’s not like the art project that just sits there on the shelf.”

And parents, worried about poor nutrition and childhood obesity, are thrilled to cultivate their kids’ interest, camp instructors say. Some are infrequent cooks themselves and fear their kids are missing out on the kind of learning that once was had at Mom’s side.

“Parents kept saying, ‘Oh, do you offer anything for kids?'” said Diane Bukatman, a personal chef from the Baltimore suburb of Reisterstown who started Kids Cook camps in her kitchen. “We sort of did it as a lark to try it seven years ago, and it filled up instantly without us even advertising it.”

Bukatman has expanded her day camp to eight summer sessions, with most weeks having 14 kids instead of the 12 she aimed for. She now offers specialty weeks in pastry and ethnic cooking and special lessons during the school year.

“They never learned this stuff at home. I taught them how to dice onions the other day and they went home and taught their parents. I mean, it’s horrifying!” Bukatman said with a laugh.

Just a couple days into the Deliciously Nutritious camp, 9-year-old A.J. Jones went home and started a family tradition: eating supper with his parents. He even made the pasta salad.

“It’s normally, like, my dad’s in the family room, my mom’s standing up, and I’m at the counter,” Jones said. “Some nights, my mom will sit at the counter with me, but now, starting a couple nights ago, we’re having family dinners.”

Another camper, 11-year-old Daina Sivilli, taught her mom how to peel a potato. “She was totally doing it wrong,” Sivilli said.

Parents not cooking at home has led to kids needing lessons in kitchen safety and food preparation, said Shelly Cheng, who started a cooking camp in her kitchen in Lakeland, Tenn., five years ago.

“Nowadays, parents are just so busy. You have two-income families and parents aren’t cooking at home,” said Cheng, taking a break after leading campers through Salisbury steak with mushroom sauce and chocolate-banana panini dessert sandwiches.

Camp chefs say the classes are worthwhile even if the kids never go on to become gourmet cooks.

“Our goal is to change the way kids think about food, so that when they grow up, they’re healthier,” said Owens, who like other chef instructors, requires her charges to at least taste every dish. “You only get one body, and you have to take care of it.”