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Kids in the kitchen: Culinary camps inspired by competitive cooking shows

Kids in the kitchen: Culinary camps inspired by competitive cooking shows

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For children growing up in the age of culinary competition shows like “Chopped Jr.” and “Kids Baking Championship,” the idea of getting messy in the kitchen has become exciting. Scenes of kid chefs making unique, complex creations captivate audiences of all ages, and summer camp directors are taking notice. 

At the Center of Creative Arts in University City, which offers more than 300 weeklong camps every summer, interest in culinary camps has risen over the past few years. COCA first started offering just a couple of cooking camps in 2001 and now hosts more than 20 per summer. 

“They've really increased in both frequency and popularity over the past five to seven years," says Shawna Flanigan, director of arts education and program development at COCA. "I think ... (it's been) in response to how much there's been an increase in these sorts of culinary shows that specifically feature kids and make kids feel like being in the kitchen is exciting and accessible to them."

These TV programs have not only made kids more interested in learning to cook but have also inspired them to become cooking show stars themselves. That’s why COCA introduced the Culinary Network camp two summers ago. In this camp, kids learn how to cook like their favorite contestants as well as how to produce their own programs.

Gabriela Vazquez, 15, of Worden has been cooking since kindergarten and has taken multiple COCA culinary classes since then. However, it was her love for cooking and baking shows that led her to sign up for the first Culinary Network camp session in 2018.

“I’ve always liked to cook, and I thought it would be cool to be part of the network process of baking shows,” she says. The shows "sparked my interest in the camp, and then my love for baking just grew from being a part of the camp.” 

Gabriela was especially inspired by shows featuring young chefs, as she could relate to both the competitors’ age and passion for cooking.

“I actually understand the kids because they’re my age, so I understand what they’re going through,” Gabriela says. “And I like to bake and stuff like that. So it’s a shared interest with people my age.”

Flanigan noted that COCA’s culinary camps had once been predominantly attended by female campers. However, the camps’ attendance has recently gained a more balanced gender makeup, which Flanigan attributes to growing interest in culinary television programs.

“You can see many more boys being attracted (to cooking) because ... that is what they're emulating in the shows,” Flanigan says.

Although DeAnn Bingaman, co-founder and marketing director of Sweetology school and bake shop in Town and Country, noted that the school’s camps have maintained female majorities since she started the company in 2014, baking shows have greatly affected campers.

“It is pretty amazing to us when the kids come in and they have a really solid working knowledge of a lot of the things that we're teaching them,” Bingaman says. “Maybe they haven't had the hands-on experience, but they have seen the tools and the techniques performed on television, and so I think that that adds maybe a layer of confidence for a lot of the kids because they feel like they're really familiar with it.”

While culinary camps may take inspiration from cooking competition shows that showcase high-stress situations, camp owners still try to create pressure-free, collaborative environments with an emphasis on learning rather than winning. 

“Everybody always wins; it's more fun than competitive,” says Faronda Davis, owner of ABC Chefs Cooking Academy, which offers television-inspired camps such as MasterChef Jr. and Mystery Basket. “We want them to come to try new recipes and to make longtime friends.”

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