Summer cooking camps: tales of solar oven berry crisp

Happy campers at Sprouts Cooking Club. Photo: Anna Dmitruk

The long foggy days of summer in Berkeley mean summer camp for many kids. In such a food-focused town it’s not surprising to learn that camps designed to encourage edible adventures are popular among the next generation of home cooks and potential professional chefs.

What may surprise you is the skills the young students master, like making pasta from scratch, using a culinary blowtorch, and preparing a four-course family meal. And the lessons the children learn: following a recipe is mostly a good thing, sometimes a dish missing many of its ingredients doesn’t taste so great, and working as a team means sitting down sooner to eat the culinary creations.

For young ones in town there are several cooking camps to choose from; we spotlight three here where children learn kitchen techniques such as knife skills, measuring and mixing, and reading a recipe, along with cleaning up and the pleasure of enjoying a meal together.

In the kitchen with this week's campers at Spun Sugar. Photo: Sarah Henry

Spun Sugar: Sweetie Camp

Location: 1611 University Avenue at California Street

Logistics: 9:00 a.m to 1:00 p.m., ages 7 to 12, max. group size 12. Cost: $300. CITS: typically 14 and older. Teens 13-17 can sign up for “Teen Daze,” where they can take regular adult baking and cake-decorating classes.

Instructors: Owner Linda Moreno and executive pastry chef Mitchell Hughes

Point of Difference: Despite the name, and the retail store’s rep as a cake decorator-baker-candy maker-sweet artist’s frosting fantasy, the campers make a multi-course meal which they eat together before class ends. Recipe book comes home. Family members invited to eat on one day.

On the menu: Split pea soup, roast chicken, mac & cheese, sauteed vegetable medley and apple tart.

What the instructor says: “I’ve taught kids who are now in their 20s that still use the recipes they learned here,” said Moreno. “Children in Berkeley are not afraid to try different foods and they’re open to exploring layering ingredients to create different flavors.”

Spun Sugar campers make pizza dough as instructor Mitchell Hughes looks on. Photo: Sarah Henry

What the campers say: “As a camper, you learn lots of cool techniques and you get to make everything from scratch from start to finish,” said Sam Siegel, 12, who has attended the camp four times and worked as a C.I.T. (counselor-in-training), the past two weeks. “As a CIT you move around more and help different kids, making sure they’re not messing up the recipe or using knives unsafely.” Siegel, an accomplished home cook, is making intricately decorated cup cakes for his own birthday celebration today, based on skills he picked up at classes he’s taken at Spun Sugar. He also caters bar mitzvahs with his cake pops, cookies and brownies.

“It was fun, but we couldn’t taste what we made along the way, so I was hungry by the time we sat down to eat,” said former camper Mayumi Rubin-Saika, 12. “But we got really great goodie bags.”

“I like that we get to work in teams and make everything from appetizers to deserts,” said Eva Collins, 12, who wants to be a baker. “As a vegetarian, I’m glad that we mostly cook things I can eat,” added her twin, Jane.

Monkey Business Camp: Outdoor Cooking

Making tofu-veggie skewers for Outdoor Cooking at Monkey Business Camp.

Location: Tilden Park

Logistics: 8:30-3:30, ages 5-6.5, 6.5-7, and 8-10. Group size: 30-40 for 5-7s, 20 for 8-10s. CITs 11-15, JCs 14+. Cost: $325

Point of difference: Cooking and eating mostly organic, vegetarian offerings, surrounded by trees.

On the menu: Pad Thai, barbecued vegetable skewers, wontons, solar oven berry crisp.

Instructors: Camp counselors including Ari Stachel, Gabe Damast, Gabe Vergez, and Laura Barry. Cheese tasting by founder-director Heather Mitchell.

Monkey Business campers cut fruit for salsa.

What the instructor says: “We encourage campers to consider what we can create outdoors without electricity and just our own inventiveness,” said Monkey Business summer program director Amber Potter. “Berkeley kids are adventurous eaters who have experienced a wide range of international cuisine.”

What the campers say: “There’s nothing like eating in nature; food just tastes better,” said Gabe Henry Woody, 12, a CIT this week and, full disclosure, the offspring of this writer. “It was a bummer when the pedal-powered bike blender malfunctioned but the strawberry salsa still tasted good.”

“I knew we’d get to make ice cream, because I’ve been here before, which is one reason I came back,” said Miles DeRosa, 10. “The pad Thai was missing some of the liquid ingredients, so it was really just peanut noodles but it’s good to experiment when you cook.”

“I learned that when cheese ages it doesn’t mean it’s old and that the mold on blue cheese is good for you and doesn’t mean it’s gone bad,” said Laila Diaz, 8. “I still didn’t like it — it tasted too strong.”

Sprouts Cooking Club

In the kitchen with Sprouts Cooking Club campers. Photo: Anna Dmitruk

Location: Moveable feast: Drop off at either Whole Foods Berkeley or Downtown Berkeley BART for transit to San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market.

Logistics: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., ages 7-13, CITs ages 14-17. Group size: 10-14, $450.

Point of difference: A non-profit that works with professional chefs from local restaurants, including in Berkeley: Revival, La Mediterranee, Phoenix Pastificio, Oakland: Pizzaiolo, Bakesale Betty and Camino, and San Francisco: Locanda, Flour + Water, and Tartine Bakery.

Instructors: Leah Brooks for Sprouts, in addition to professional guest chefs.

On the menu: Tortellini and gnocchi from scratch, hummus and baklava, freshly-pulled mozzarella, gluten-free beet cupcakes with cashew frosting, salted caramel mousse.

What the instructor says: “Kids are excited by food and their take on food and nutrition is without bias or prior expectation,” said Sprouts Cooking Club founder Karen Rogers. “They are motivated to touch, try and taste on their own. They ask honest questions and their reactions are raw and real.”

What the campers say: “I really liked that we got to make different stuff every day,” said recent camper Anna Goodman, 12. “This camp is for kids who like to experiment with food.” Fellow camper Mayumi Rubin-Saika agreed. The only downside in Rubin-Saika’s mind: “It sometimes took a lot of time for the counselors to set up for the cooking activities.”

“I wanted to learn how to flambe and they taught us how to use a culinary blowtorch, which was way cool,” said Julia Sweeney, 13, a CIT who has taken Sprouts classes and camps for three years and who went with the club on a culinary trip to France this spring. “I make the chicken masala I learned at Sprouts all the time. I like the camp because it’s real chefs working in their own real kitchens.”

Watch a short video on Sprouts Cooking Club here.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook. Henry taught (indoor) cooking classes one summer for Monkey Business Camp.

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  • Songbird11

    We love Sprouts!  My daughter went to Sprouts last year for the first time and came home and made gnocchi from scratch – without a recipe!  She was only eight years old at the time.  In fact, we planned her whole summer around Sprouts this year, she wouldn’t miss it for the world!  The staff to child ratio is fantastic.  The only down side is sometimes the professional chefs do most of the work and the kids watch a bit much – but that really depended on what chef was teaching at any given moment.  Can’t wait for next week’s camp at the Ferry Building!

  • MP

    Another great thing about Sprouts is that they offer so many scholarships both for summer camp and their culinary trips.

  • Sarah Henry

    Good point, MP. Sprouts founder Karen Rogers wants her non-profit cooking camps and classes to be accessible, so she sets aside ten percent of the organization’s budget
    for scholarships. Last year, Sprouts offered full and partial
    scholarship to some 65 students.

  • Sarah Henry

    Here’s a sneak peek on what’s on offer this week at the Ferry Plaza Sprouts Cooking Club camp, courtesy of the folks from CUESA: http://www.cuesa.org/article/summer-camp-young-cooks