Over the past six years of writing trip recaps, we’ve always landed on the word “incredible” to describe our experiences. This year, incredible doesn’t seem to fully capture the week shared at Camp Sunshine, a camp for children living with life-threatening illnesses and their families. This trip transcended incredible; transformative is perhaps the more appropriate word. In just seven days, our CulinaryCorps team made an impact not only on the community served but the future of our organization as well. We set out to spread knowledge, support and joy through food and cooking. Thanks to the staff and campers of Camp Sunshine, we ended up carving out an entirely new model to achieve our culanthropy mission.
Each and every one of you–from our nine chef-volunteers, to our generous donors and sponsors, to our steadfast supporters who cheered us along the way–is to thank for the overwhelming success of our culinary efforts during the camp’s oncology session. Every day you helped us offer up our kitchen know-how, our culinary charisma, and our refreshing and unabashed enthusiasm for making the world a better place through good food. In two words, you all are Awesome Sauce. (Coincidentally, this is also the name of our winning Top Chef Sunshine team. But more on that later.)
Because there were strict guidelines about posting photos taken at Camp Sunshine, we held off recapping the week until we had the all-clear. Now that we are green lit to share the images taken throughout the week by camp photographer AJ Cincotta-Eichenfield , we’d like to take a moment to walk you through our stay on the beautiful shores of Lake Sebago.
To set the scene, our VISION for the trip was to enhance the camp’s daily programming (think arts ‘n’ crafts, archery, rock climbing, kayaking and frisbee golf) with cooking classes and culinary events designed for campers of all ages. Each day of our World of Flavors curriculum was designed to explore one country’s unique cuisine as well as teach culinary basics and healthful alternatives to unhealthy foods. Every day we hosted five hour-long, hands-on, cooking classes for the camp’s various age groups: 3-5 year olds, 6-9 year olds, 10-12 year olds, teens and parents. Despite age or disability, everyone involved made the same recipes. All in all, we taught about 20 hours of cooking classes in just 5 days for over 120 campers and parents (and about the same number of volunteers). The best part, of course, was the final 10-minutes of each lesson when we all sat down to enjoy our creations at a flower-filled communal table.
But where did we do all this cooking? Well, we’re glad you asked! Earlier this year, a tremendous supporter of Camp Sunshine built an awe-inspiring wood-fired oven and grill out of locally foraged stones. The resulting culinary patio, complete with stone-slab table, was perfect for our OUTDOOR COOKING CLASSROOM. All it took was a a lot of equipment, a small mountain of wood and a few choice items to set the international scene including flags, books and hip-shaking tunes. Two tents helped to keep the sun and light drizzle at bay though when we did get a shower one afternoon, our pop-up kitchen was easily broken down and set up inside the camp’s cafeteria.
Of course, our most important MISSION throughout the week was to add even more joy to camp through good food. A Camp Sunshine visit is one of the few week’s during the entire year that these families just get to be families, unfettered from doctor’s appointments and hospital visits. For us, it was more important that people were smiling and connecting with us and with each other. If recipes got a little rushed, rumpled, or burnt along the way, well, we considered that the price of a good time. Our hope was that cooking with these campers and parents would provide educational entertainment throughout the week, culinary knowledge to bring home to their own kitchens and a whole lot of happiness. In sum, we wanted to cook up something for everyone to remember!
SUNDAY, AUGUST 11th, 2013
On Sunday, the families arrived in the early afternoon to move into their family housing and get acquainted with camp. After dinner, we had an opportunity as a team to introduce ourselves and our culinary programming for the week. All of our chef-volunteers rose to the challenge as we got goofy on stage to “sell” our WORLD OF FLAVORS classes to the campers. Ex-opera singer and current chef-instructor, Rusty, even trotted out an Italian aria to get everyone excited about the following day’s trip to Italy.
Right after dinner, we invited the entire camp to TEST YOUR TASTE BUDS by guessing a dozen different ingredients that would be used throughout the week in our recipes. Upon completion of the tasty task, every camper would receive their first keepsake button of the week, in this case a globe to get them ready for their culinary trip around the world. (Every class completed would earn them another button–the country’s flag in most cases–to add to their aprons.) As for the results of the taste buds test, we were impressed with the number of correct answers received for harder-to-identify ingredients like nori and quinoa. And those who didn’t get them right made some very educated guesses including hominy and sesame seeds for the uncooked quinoa grains. All in all, it was a great way to meet and greet the campers as well as get everyone excited about the delicious fun in store for them that week.
MONDAY, AUGUST 12th, 2013
BUON APPETITO: A DINNER IN ITALY: On Monday morning, we fired up the oven and dove right into our first Italian cooking class. After washing hands and listening to our kitchen guidelines, the campers split into two groups to join one of our two cooking stations. At the first station, we had three chefs teaching campers how to make dough from scratch using sprouted whole-wheat. Campers then stretched their own pizza crust and after a dough switcheroo, topped their own par-baked pizza crusts with fresh mozzarella, homemade tomato sauce and fragrant summer basil. The Margherita pizzas were then finished in the blazing wood oven that clocked in at about 750 degrees Fahrenheit!
After about 15 minutes, the two camper groups switched stations. Those who did pizzas first, moved on to our panzanella salad station learning the invaluable lesson of proper knife skills as well as how to make a homemade vinaigrette in a recycled jam jar. During the dressing making, there was a lot of singing to KC and the Sunshine Band’s lesser known hit, Shake Shake Your Dressing. In fact, at that evening’s Camp Masquerade several of us turned into party animals and shook a tail feather to the same song!
TUESDAY, AUGUST 13th, 2013
OISHI: A LUNCH IN JAPAN: Tuesday transported us to the Land of the Rising Sun. Our sojourn to Japan included two recipes at two separate stations. The first station had campers filling their own edamame dumplings to pop into the steamer as well as whisking together a ginger-soy dipping sauce. While waiting for the dumplings to cook, this station had everyone practicing the art of wielding chopsticks.
The second station was all about rolling futomaki , or sushi rolls, bursting with garden goodies including spinach, green beans, avocado, carrots, cabbage and cucumbers. For those who could find the room, there was also wild smoked salmon to add to the mix. The most interesting part of the sushi rolls, however, was how they cleverly incorporated whole grains. The sushi rice was made up of a 50/50 combination of brown short grain rice and quinoa making it a fiber and protein powerhouse. At the end of the class, everyone sat down and dunked their dumplings and promptly became members of our “One Bite Club.” (We asked everyone to take a single small bite of the things we made together. They didn’t have to like it! But they couldn’t “yuck anyone’s yum” either.)
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 14th, 2013
Wednesday morning was devoted to a FIESTA with our BREAKFAST IN MEXICO menu. One group made tortillas from scratch with tortilla presses along with a fresh corn and black bean salsa. The other group squished up a guacamole-in-a-bag which helped keep the mess to a minimum. This group also learned how to properly crack and whisk eggs which were the main ingredient in our cheesy chorizo scramble.
After the groups switched, we served the campers their fully-assembled breakfast tacos restaurant-style. At the end of one of our classes camper Jaxson recited a CulinaryCorps-inspired poem that he wrote:
Chefs are wonderful.
Chefs are great.
There’s just one thing,
Has everyone ate?
We all gave him a standing ovation for that one!
On Wednesday afternoon, we took a break from the kitchen classroom and got silly with our first annual FAMILY FOODIE OLYMPICS. Since it was family free time that afternoon, the CulinaryCorps chefs created four messy/fun challenges that family teams could compete in together. If all four events were completed, the courageous family-team received the coveted Family Foodie Olympics Trophy. Our events included Butter Up where each family had to shake as hard and as long as they could to turn cream into butter. As a delicious bonus, we all got to enjoy the freshly made delicacy with baguettes right after the games were over.
There was also Pie in the Sky, our version of a pie-eating contest where families went head to head to fish strawberries out of a pie plate piled high with whipped cream.
The Hello Jell-O station dressed one family member in goggles and a quart container hat while another family member stood nearby armed with a bucket of the neon dessert. At the sound of the whistle, they tossed hunks of Jell-O at their parent/sibling/counselor’s head hoping to land as much of the sweet stuff in the container. Let’s just say there were a lot of misses.
And finally Chef Egg let everyone step into our shoes donning our full cook’s uniform and running, relay style, with an egg to switch up the costume with a teammate. If you can believe it, with over 20 families competing, only one egg was broken. And to round out the festivities, there were Edible Haiku and a Guess the Gum Balls contests to enter. The family who guessed the fruit in the middle along with the closest to the total number got to keep the gum balls! The winning family was the proud owner of 2,467 tiny globes of sugar. (The pineapple made its way into at least one Top Chef Sunshine dish!)
On Wednesday evening, we had the honor of helping Chef Jon host the parents-only DATE NIGHT DINNER. This is an evening set aside just for the parents where they can dine on linen-covered tables sans children. While Chef Jon and his team did all the heavy lifting in the kitchen, we were able to help finish off his risotto as well as trot out Rusty once again to serenade the crowd with his version of Always and Forever on the karaoke machine. It was a touching night to be certain.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 15th, 2013
On Thursday, the final day of programming for camp, our daily culinary lessons were put to good use as each age group competed separately in their very own TOP CHEF SUNSHINE challenge. The winning team of each age group would go on to compete for the Golden Rolling Pin, the most-coveted Top Chef Sunshine award on the planet. Our kitchen stadium was outfitted with a pantry of ingredients and a selection of cookware we had used throughout the week. Once the campers were clear on the rules of the competition, each age group was divided into three teams and paired up with our CulinaryCorps chefs. Then, with a flourish right out of the Iron Chef playbook, the secret ingredient was revealed…whole wheat ramen noodles! The teams had 5 minutes to plan and 15 minutes to create one dish using the secret ingredient. The final dishes were judged by a trio of esteemed guest judges (including two of the people that made our trip possible, the camp’s founder, Anna Gould, and Camp Director, Michael Katz) for creativity, presentation, taste and most importantly, teamwork.
It was amazing to watch all the teams, from the youngest on up, work with such skill and determination. The amount of engagement within each competing group could easily rival that of a four-star kitchen. We even had campers reminding one another to use their “bear claws” (a safe knife skills technique) and watched them as they “cleaned as they cooked”, a lesson even professional cooks forget sometimes. But as we all know, the proof of the pudding is in the eating! Happily, the judges had a very difficult time deciding on the teams that put up the best dishes. However, with teamwork as the deciding factor, team Awesome Sauce reigned supreme with their version of “Cup ‘o’ Noodles” and were the proud recipients of the GOLDEN ROLLING PIN at the final Camp Celebration. It truly was a dish as beautiful to look at as it was to enjoy (picture below).
To cap off the entire week, CulinaryCorps was able to donate a local LOBSTER AND STEAK DINNER for the entire camp. It was glorious to see everyone digging into beautifully steamed lobsters with buttery smiles on their faces. We even got to crack into a few of our own. But while the donation for the meal was generously made by CulinaryCorps on behalf of the Carroll family, the cooking and serving was done entirely by the Camp Sunshine cafeteria staff and volunteers. And they nailed it. In fact, they were the unsung heroes of the entire week serving almost 300 hungry mouths breakfast, lunch and dinner each day. Plus, they had us to contend with all week tromping in and out of their kitchen at all hours. They handled it all, and us, with grace and professionalism, and we truly could not have had successful week without them.
Just as we started the week on stage, so too did we end it. And while we may have teared up a bit on the mic while recapping our week at the Camp Sunshine closing celebration, we hoped our message was clear, that we were overjoyed to share our passion for cooking with such a tremendous audience and humbled by such tremendous appreciation. To bring it all back to our Italian kick-off, Rusty got the crowd singing along to That’s Amore and we left the stage to a beautiful standing ovation. During breakfast the next morning, the very last day of camp, chefs were hugged, high-fived and asked to sign all sorts of Camp Sunshine paraphernalia from hats to shirts. We felt like rock stars while were packing up all of our equipment for storage at camp for next year. We all agreed that we received so much more than we felt that we gave.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, we want to mention the CHEF-VOLUNTEERS themselves. Chosen from a highly competitive applicant pool, these nine individuals including our fearless co-leaders, Aimee Bariteau, Jessica Botta and Susan Conley Tuason, were exactly what you would want in a culinary brigade. Each of them demonstrated an ability to lead in the face of the unknown, laugh in the spirit of friendship, and give fully of themselves in a time of need for others. Plus, they danced, sang and cheered–oftentimes in a sombrero–to make camp, well, camp. Many families were shocked when we told them they had just met a few days earlier for the first time. Most people thought they had been working together as a team for years, the highest kitchen compliment you can get beyond emphatic mmmmmmmmmms.
And the FEEDBACK we have received thus far from the staff and campers has been awesome:
We had a great time this week at camp, the chefs from CulinaryCorps were wonderful with my kids, not to mention they got my children to eat food I wouldn’t normally try to get them to eat. Thank you so much and here’s hoping that your group comes a regular at Camp Sunshine so other families get to enjoy this lovely group of people. –The Welliver Family
Thank you so much coming out and making Camp even more special this week! Your passion for cooking is contagious. My kids loved all the recipes, even my picky eater joined the the one bite club!! –Lori Slipski Keller
It was truly a tremendous camp session and I believe it was due in a large part to you and CulinaryCorps professionalism, ability to relate to all our guests and your overwhelming enthusiasm and positive energy (not to mention your cooking skills). Everyone is still talking about your impact on camp and just about every comment sheet turned in for the camp session alluded to how great the “CulinaryCorps Group” was and they hope they come back. You have our gratitude and appreciation! We already miss not having CulinaryCorps here for this camp session! –Michael Katz, Camp Director
To wrap up this lengthy recap, allow us to share our our 50,000 FOOT VIEW of the week’s impact on our organization. When CulinaryCorps was founded in 2006, we believed that cooks could make a profound difference in a community facing great challenges. At the time, that community was post-Katrina New Orleans, an area we grew to love more with every return culanthropy trip. Little did we know that over six years later our definition of “community” would expand far beyond geographic demarcation. Our trip to Camp Sunshine crystallized this expansion. The families we served were solely bonded by personal circumstance, life with childhood cancer, but were no less a community for lack of physical borders. Because of this, we believe our time on the shores of Lake Sebago have signaled a changing wind for the organization. One that has put us on a swift tack as we venture further into the waters of food education for all who may benefit from our lessons, regardless of location. From our genesis as emergency kitchen manpower in the lower 9th ward, we are gradually becoming a Corps of culinary educators. This has been a wonderful evolution to for us all. In the end, we feel incredibly fortunate to cook in a world full of so much flavor and so much love. Here’s to our return to Camp Sunshine in 2014!