Derek Polay had no trouble finding the Henderson Building Foods Lab in spite of massive construction snarls that had others tiptoeing uncertainly beneath the trees on the edge of Old Main lawn and arriving breathless and late.
He strode into the room with a confidence that stemmed from his complete ease with the situation. The 18-year-old recent State College Area High School graduate had come to speak to the campers as the 13th annual “Cook Like a Chef: The Basics” program launched recently; he had a special message for the 36 children, aged 11 to 13, who exhibited first-day best behavior and hung on his every word.
“Four years ago, I was sitting at the tables where you are, and today I am working in the kitchen at Centre Hills Country Club and getting ready to go to the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park in October for a two-year associate’s degree,” Polay said.
“I found my passion is food, and I am happiest when I am cooking; it’s not like work to me at all.”
Polay first attended the cooking camp program in 2008, after he and I had a serendipitous encounter at a Giant grocery store. I noticed how carefully he was bagging his mom’s groceries and he noticed the inordinate amount of fruits and vegetables I was buying for the Foods Lab. We struck up a conversation that continues today, thanks to his mom, Kristin Cox, who keeps me informed of his culinary progress.
The “Cook Like a Chef” cooking camp is a weeklong half-day camp program offered by Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development’s Outreach office. Over the years, it has become nationally recognized as a valuable learning experience not just for the campers, but also for the Penn State undergraduates — mostly nutrition majors — who serve as counselors during the week and gain hands-on experience in nutrition education.
A large part of the recognition of the value of the program is thanks to the partnership with Clemson University in South Carolina and one special professor there, Marge Condrasky, who has been volunteering at the program with a changing cast of her culinary nutrition students since 2005. Condrasky drives the research engine of the program, administering questionnaires that the campers fill in on day one and day five. Articles about the program have appeared in many journals over the years, the latest one in the January-March issue of “Topics in Clinical Nutrition.”
What we have found over the years is that the campers do indeed broaden their scope on fruits and vegetables and gain practical culinary skills that can help them make healthier food choices.
With cooking programs virtually eliminated from standard curriculums in schools and the very real decline in home cooking due to the proliferation of inexpensive fast food and prepared food options, the cooking camp is one way to connect a highly impressionable age group with an endangered life skill.
Polay’s motivational talk to the campers stressed the importance of local ingredients. He was proud to say that the country club has a large garden and uses vegetables from it on the menu. He bragged about the many tomato varieties and was pleased to report that the kale had already been picked four times.
Engaging young chefs with local foods is a winning situation for a dining establishment and a community for the benefit of all customers.
For the campers to hear that message from one of their “near peers” gave it a validity that my own lecturing could never match.
After Polay expertly chopped the vegetables to demonstrate a soup recipe, the campers set to their tasks to make soup and salad for lunch and come to the table an hour later for a shared lunch with their tablemates. One of the campers was setting out the placemats when I overheard her say, “I can’t believe I am so hungry for soup.”
But a basic minestrone soup, made with zucchini, fresh peas and green beans from Big Valley and kale and parsley from the garden, has immediacy and delights all the senses.
After 13 years of running the camp, this is my last year. Co-director Meghan McCracken is poised to take the helm next summer.
Though I’d like to, I can’t really take the credit for launching Polay on his career path. He learned his culinary sensibilities long before I met him in the checkout line seven years ago. And I don’t know if there will be more budding chefs with dreams of going on “Chopped” coming out of the program. But I do know that there will be 36 more young people who will learn basic knife skills, who know that you can bake bread without any heavy equipment, who will get acquainted with some new options in fruits and vegetables, and who learn how to wash dishes and maintain a safe and clean kitchen work area. There will be 36 more young people who say, “Yes I can cook — like a chef!”