Training ground: MUW Culinary Camp inspires independence in the kitchen

June 30, 2010 10:40:00 AM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


"Beautiful, beautiful!" praised Chef Vicki Leach, checking Britton Walker's fried green tomatoes in progress during the fourth and final week of the Culinary Arts Institute's Culinary Camp at Mississippi University for Women. Tantalizing aromas mingled June 22 as 18 campers at cooking stations industriously went about the mouth-watering business of creating everything from Asian peanut salad to risotto.  


The chef, dressed in white tunic and bright tie-dyed slacks, efficiently bustled from station to station offering quick point-on advice. She responded to most questions with one of her own. 


"If they ask 'Chef Vicki, why do I do it this way?' I might ask, 'Well, if you did this, what would happen?' It helps them think through the process." 


While the previous three week-long sessions of camp have been filled with second- to sixth-graders, the final week is reserved for seventh- through 12th-graders. The older campers are being paid the compliment of more complex recipes and expectations.  




Skills and responsibility  


Lesson plans and goals for each week are adjusted as campers' ages and skill levels increase. While younger participants the first week may concentrate on breakfast foods and making homemade pizza for their parents on the last day of camp, these older participants complete their own version of a "finals" dinner, just as the university's senior culinary majors do. 


"They set the menus with four courses, execute the menu, then serve properly, complete with entire place setting," said Chef Vicki. "I want them to be comfortable with the concept of 'dining' as opposed to 'eating' a meal." 


On the last day of their camp experience, the blossoming cooks create 18 recipes (one per student) for their parents and guests to enjoy in a mingling "cocktail party" atmosphere.  


Leach explained, "They are responsible for mise en place (setting up, organizing all ingredients) and execution of the recipe. ... We also allow these students to use every piece of equipment the culinary arts majors use. But, what I teach every one of the camps is that there is no mystery to cooking." 


MUW culinary students Jami Kimbrell and Christopher Washington served as assistants during the 2010 Culinary Camp. 


Watching a camper prepare vegetables for a dish of duck with pepper jelly sauce, Kimbrell noted, "The biggest difference between the younger ages and these older campers is the level of independence they have in the kitchen. ... The older campers are approaching the level of junior prep students." 


Paige Pilkinton, 14, of Columbus was attending for her fourth year. The daughter of Henry and Sandra Pilkinton worked effectively with partner Alison Powell, also 14, of Tuscaloosa, Ala., on bleu cheese sliders and homemade potato chips. 


"Each year you get to do something new and interesting," said Paige, who feels empowered by what she's learned. "You read something and say to yourself, 'I know how to do that!'" 




Repeat customers 


The popular camp enjoys a waiting list every summer for good reason. Its reputation for instilling sound fundamentals of food handling and preparation -- and being just plain fun -- often brings cooks-in-training back year after year. 


Cheryl Brown, coordinator of culinary operations for the Institute, praised the campers' teamwork and added, "We've got kids who have come up through the ranks; many of them are very focused, very serious." Smiling, she added, "So many of them are already foodies," defining someone with "a passion for foods, adventurous to try new things and new cuisines, someone who gets excited if they see a bell pepper growing!" 


Brother and sister Tinsley and Allimarie Brooks have been coming to camp for at least nine years. The children of James and Rosemarie Brooks of Columbus certainly know their way around the oven and pantry now. 


"It's taught me a lot. I can cook for myself when my parents are out. I don't have to order pizza all the time," grinned 14-year-old Tinsley, making fried pies with chocolate filling with his cooking partner, Alaire Bretz, 15, of Houston. 


"I strive to make the kids comfortable enough in the kitchen that they will continue to cook and explore food on their own as they grow," said Chef Vicki.  


Now in its 11th year, MUW's Culinary Camp has always focused on seasonal freshness. 


"Chefs and culinary majors have been pushing the concept of 'from farm to table' for years," Leach stated. "Every chef worth his salt is concerned with what's happening to the food we are eating, and that's the way we've always taught our camps." 


This fall marks a camp milestone: The first Culinary Camp participant will enter MUW as a culinary major. 


"I'm excited about that," Chef Vicki stated. "We have one of only two handfuls of colleges and universities to offer a four-year culinary arts degree, a Bachelor of Science in culinary arts. That makes our students hirable in the food world. We have students working for magazines and publications, working for resorts and spas (and not just in the kitchen), in test kitchens and more. The degree ... opens doors for them; they understand food and the science behind the food. We're different and happy to pass those same concepts on to this younger crowd -- our culinary campers." 








One 4-ounce piece of salmon (or catfish filet) 


Fresh carrots, celery and onion, cut into julienne 


Fresh herbs (any kind you like)  


Kosher salt 


Ground black pepper 


One piece of parchment paper, folded in half and cut into a heart shape 




Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.