Children making food from scratch and preferring the kitchen over the TV? No, this is not a parent fantasy, but a common occurrence at the weekly “Kids in the Kitchen” culinary summer camp at Mercer County Community College.
“The children do all their own cleaning. For some kids that’s their favorite part,” said Doug Fee, who has been a chef instructor since the camp started 17 years ago. “Most of them they want to be in the kitchen instead of watching a video we have for them.”
Beginning June 19, MCCC offers nine individual weeks of half-day camps. There are five different weekly themes and children can sign up for all five. The morning 8:30-11:30 a.m. section is for 12 children ages 7 to 10, and the afternoon 1-4 p.m. class accommodates 14 children ages 10-13. Tuition and fees are $175.
“Every day of the week the children get their chef hats on and we talk about the recipes they are going to make,” Fee said. “We usually do two recipes per day, sometimes three if there is extra time.”
The camp provides five different cooking themes. A La Mode features ice cream making and pastry creations, and there are also topics dedicated entirely to chocolate recipes and Italian-themed dishes. A restaurant week has campers making a three-course meal, and the campers take turns preparing and serving meals to each other in the dining room. Finally, a “Holidaze” week features foods associated with solstice, Columbus Day, Independence Day, Halloween, and Mardi Gras.
The camp children occupy two fully equipped commercial kitchens. Not only do children learn to work in groups, they might even pick up some science — what makes yeast rise? — and math.
Fee has noticed that the young cooks keep careful track of their culinary creations. For example, before tossing cookies into the oven each is labeled so the kids can see how their own cookie turns out.
In case too much flour was added, Fee also prepares a “control batch” to ensure that no one goes home empty handed.
Fee grew up in Monmouth County and currently lives in Howell. His father worked in management and his mother was a nurse. After high school he went straight to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.
“At that time it was primarily a chef school,” Fee said. “You really get immersed in the industry and culture. It took me years to pay off the student loans. We used to tease that CIA stands for ‘cash in advance.’”
Fee has worked at MCCC for the past 19 years and he coordinates the MCCC culinary programs during the school year. There are four different two-year degree options —culinary and pastry arts, food science, culinology, and management — programs which Fee notes are much more economical than culinary schools. Those interested in entering the food business can also study part time.
“Graduates from MCCC are just as sought after as those from CIA,” Fee said. “If you’ve eaten in an upscale restaurant in West Windsor or Princeton, you’ve probably eaten food prepared by one my students.”
Other children who participated in the camp have even returned as students in the formal MCCC culinary program.
“They’re just following their passion, that’s what we like to see,” Fee said. “The only difference between the adults I’ve taught and kids in the camp are campers are a lot shorter. Kids ask a lot of question, they are very inquisitive, and they are always anxious to see how their cooking comes out.”
What’s impressed Fee the most over the years? “The kids are very creative in their ideas. For example, we do sugar cookies, and someone asks about coloring them so we ended up doing tie-dye cookies. That’s how we keep fresh, updating things and a lot of times we get ideas from the kids.”
For more information on MCCC’s summer camp offerings, call (609) 770-3311 or go to their website.