Summer camps help kids find their inner chef

“More black pepper,” Sam Lewin intoned like a mantra, to Chef Matthew Chartier, as he seasoned soup made with romanesco, a green spiral-patterned cousin of cauliflower.

Lewin was a camper this summer at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco’s culinary camp for kids. In addition to cooking, he visited the farmers’ markets at the Ferry Building and Civic Center to learn first-hand what “farm to table” means.

The JCCSF was one of many area JCCs and synagogues that offered cooking camps this summer, and I dropped in on two of them to see how foodie culture is filtering down to the next generation.

At the JCCSF, which is now in its sixth summer of culinary camp, each week had a different theme. It fell to Chartier, who caters events at San Francisco State University during the school year, to plan what the kids — third- to fifth-graders — would do. Chartier, whose forearm sports an onion, carrot and celery tattoo, referencing mirepoix, the French flavoring base, was relishing this summer job because it combined working with kids and being a chef.

On the day I visited, the kids, divided into two teams — the Electric Chefs and the Midnight Ninja Chefs — cooked up the bounty they had bought at the farmers’ markets in the previous two days. (Teams are necessary because the kitchen is too small for all campers to cook at once).

Each team had a separate menu consisting of a soup, salad and side dish. They took turns prepping and cooking, or playing games outside of the kitchen, when it wasn’t their turn.

When Cheffie (the kids started calling Chartier “Cheffie” on Day One, and it stuck) Chartier pointed out David Albrecht, who stood over the stove sautéing corn, as the least picky of the group, Albrecht proudly added, “and I’m one of the hardest working.”

Athena Feris volunteered that cooking is her favorite hobby, and that “I like studying the art and knowledge of food, as it invites you into another world.” When asked what she liked to cook, she said, “Oh, I like to mix it up a bit.” (How old is this kid?) She also told me that she minces rather than chops, when she wants things really small.

The day ended with the campers tasting their labors; in addition to the romanesco soup, there was a tomato basil soup, two salads, and stir-fried green beans with garlic and roasted herb potatoes with sautéed corn.

Vishal Krishnaiah (left) and Gabe Cohen mix a cucumber salad at the JCCSF’s culinary camp for kids. photo/alix wall

Meanwhile, across the Bay in Alameda, Temple Israel’s religious school principal Mindy Myers put on a camp called “Cooking Round the World.” The idea came to her while she was teaching religious school. She realized most kids came from interfaith families, and in many cases, knew little about Jewish culture. To the curriculum she added Jewish music, art and cooking. The kids really took to the cooking, so she broadened the course’s appeal for summer, and opened it to the general community. It’s now in its second year. And she has plans to take the Jewish part of it to other schools and synagogues.

On each day of the one-week sessions, the kids learned about a different country by seeing a few pictures of it, learning a few words of its language, playing a game, and then cooking its food. I happened to visit on the day devoted to the Philippines, and watched as the fifth- through seventh-graders whipped up marinated chicken, onion and pineapple skewers, fruit fried rice, corn — which had “fur” according to one camper assigned to de-husk it — with brown sugar and coconut, ambrosia fruit salad and two kinds of cookies.

Despite her years in California, Myers still sounds very much the Queens native. Although she’s taken some classes, her culinary background came mostly from her mother. “My parents were Viennese Holocaust survivors,” she said. “They came to this country with almost nothing, except their baking pans.”

While eating, Meyers led the kids in a discussion of the food, having them rate each dish on a scale of 1 to 10. The corn and crinkle cookies proved to be the most popular.

“I give the kabob a seven, because it’s a bit too chewy for me,” said Sonja Davidsdotter, 9.

Myers further asked the kids to name an ingredient that appeared more than once in the dishes (pineapple was one answer, coco-nut, another) and used it as an opportunity to talk about eating locally, as both are grown in hot climates like the Philippines.

Compared to the food the day before, which was Hungarian, it was a toss-up which cuisine was better.

Katia Pokotylo, 11, said that compared to dance camp, where she had to learn two routines a day, cooking camp was much more relaxing. “There’s no pressure,” she said. “You can have fun just doing what you’re doing.”

She rated the crinkle cookies “a solid nine because while they taste good, there are still a few clumps of flour.”

And Isaac Benson, a 12-year-old who is considering a career as a chef, said that while he already cooks at home, camp offered him the opportunity to branch out from the steak and chicken he usually makes. “It’s really fun to learn about food and desserts from other cultures,” he said.

SMALL BITE: Allison Schaffer was one of this summer’s 27 Kohn interns, college students who spend eight weeks in paid positions at Bay Area Jewish communal service agencies. She was, however, the only one assigned to a food concern — 12 Tribes, a kosher catering company. This is the first time in the program’s 27 years that an intern has worked in the food industry.

On the day I caught up with her, she was helping Rebecca Joseph, 12 Tribes’ “Rabbi Chef,” teach a dessert class at the Thrive House, a nonprofit serving the youth of San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood. Joseph was volunteering her time for the second year to teach a class to a group of teens, mostly girls.

Schaffer, a San Francisco native who is now at the University of Michigan, said that because her parents were “gourmand, cheffy type people, I already had more cooking experience than the average 19-year-old.” But with her summer internship, she said, “I’ve definitely quadrupled my kitchen and dishwashing skills in the past weeks working with Becky.”


Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."