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 children, 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 asked 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," said 10-year-old Asya Proctor, whose grandmother signed her up for the camp because Asya calls Food Network star Rachael Ray her "hero."
"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," said Hilleary Kehrli, spokeswoman for kitchen goods 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," said 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 to offer 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.
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 a 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," Cheng said.
On the Net:
- Kids Culinary Cooking Camp, www.kidssummercampforcooking.com;