Summer camp inspires high schoolers to enter the culinary field

by Jocelyn Tolbert

Chicago’s Kendall College Trust (KCT), an independent 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit providing need-based financial support to students pursuing degrees in hospitality and culinary arts, is in the middle of its third summer of Culinary Camp.

KCT’s summer camp introduces culinary skills to high school students in impoverished areas of Chicago, sparking interest in future careers. Helmed by Executive Director Catherine De Orio, the camp builds meaningful relationships, forging connections at a pivotal time in students’ lives.

“We thought, ‘How can we make more of an impact? When does that spark happen?’ You see it in high schoolers. They have a lot of passion, but the thing at that age is if someone isn’t supporting your dreams, it’s easy for them to fizzle out. Because kids are kids. They need that support and someone fanning that passion,” De Orio says. “So we thought, ‘Why don’t we find students who have an interest in this and get them to a culinary camp?’ They can come to the college and see what a career in this would mean, and hopefully we can get them on a vocational track.”

They found their students by working with Careers through Culinary Arts Program and the Chicago Public School System. Students like Malik Waddy, who’s currently a student at University of Chicago Charter School in Woodlawn where he will be a junior.  “My passion for the culinary industry was sparked when I was seven years old and started cooking with my grandfather,” he says. “When I was presented with the opportunity to enroll in KCT’s summer culinary camp, I knew it would be a great way to enhance my culinary skills and bring me closer to pursuing my dream of becoming a chef.”

Following last year’s flourishing summer program, this year 72 students have the opportunity to stay in Kendall College dorms and get their feet wet in the culinary world, from learning behind-the-scenes restaurant operations to advanced cooking and baking skills, mimicking the real-life experiences they would get if they chose to attend college.

“Most camps tend to be day camps. The evening, overnight camp element, and adding in the cultural element, is what sets us apart. … Many kids come from broken or single-parent homes. The parent is working, so one kid will take on a caregiver role because they’re the oldest one in the house. It’s nice for them to be able to not be an adult for a week,” De Orio says. “They can come to the college and see what a career in this would mean, and hopefully we can get them on a vocational track. Once they’re there, they’re part of our family and we can help with scholarship funding.”

There are two sessions, one beginner for freshmen and sophomores, and one advanced, for juniors and seniors. The beginner session courses cover basic cooking, baking and pastry, nutrition, butchery, knife skills, sanitation, use of equipment, and kitchen terminology, as well as some aspects of hospitality and front of house. The advanced session brings together soon-to-be seniors to learn expert culinary skills including professional knife cuts, cooking methods and butchery. A nutritional element is also incorporated into the program, teaching students the ins and outs of micro and macro-nutrients, serving sizes and disease prevention.

Waddy is attending culinary camp for his second year in a row. He was enrolled in the “Taste of the Kitchen” introductory session last summer, and this year attended the advanced session. He will also participate in KCT’s second advanced session during the week of July 16. “It has been an incredible experience, and has given me the confidence and skill set to attend culinary school once I graduate and eventually open a Caribbean restaurant of my own,” he says.

In addition to the classes, students have the opportunity to embark on cultural excursions in the evenings.

“To get to know the other kids better, they do an activity. They might do iFLY, which is indoor skydiving. We also take them to a Broadway in Chicago play. they went to the fireworks at navy pier,” says De Orio. “Most of our kids are from around Chicago but have never been to the lakefront or downtown. … We want it to be fun.”

While KCT’s program is small, it’s not just helping the Chicago at-risk youth community. Camps and programs like this are helping to build the culinary community as well.

“You’re hearing it across the board. There’s a shortage of workers in the industry. [Because of programs like ours,] you can get a student who can come in after high school — they’re not being schooled on basic knife techniques and cuts of meat. They’re not learning cooking techniques for the first time. they can pick things up quicker. That is definitely going to help the industry,” De Orio says. “We raise scholarships for higher education. But the reality is, some students don’t have the desire to go to college. They just want to get into the workforce. This allows them to do that.”

The first two sessions of Culinary Camp took place from June 25 to 29 including a Basic and Advanced group. The third session for Advanced students takes place July 16 to 20, rounding out the program.