A row of tempting dishes lined the countertop in the demonstration kitchen — grilled chicken breast, spaghetti in a cream sauce topped with asiago cheese and a garnish, shapely bite-sized sugar cookies, and a white chocolate mousse topped with miniature marshmallows and melted chocolate drizzle.
The chefs who prepared and presented the plates were around 10 years old.
Oh, and they’d only been cooking for a few days.
“Green as the grass,” said chef Alison Rainis of her young pupils when they started out.
Rainis is an executive chef instructor at Vita Nova, a restaurant serving as a training lab for hospitality students in the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics at the University of Delaware. But for three weeks in June and July she led Livin’ La Vita Nova Culinary Camp for children going into fifth through ninth grades.
Everyone has to eat, so there’s an obvious benefit to knowing how to prepare food. Rainis said learning to cook also teaches basic life skills: Organization, discipline, being able to work independently, and the ability to figure out a process.
She pointed to the French term “mise en place.”
“It translates to everything in its place … if you’re making chocolate chip cookies, you have all your flour laid out, you have your sugar measured, you have your chocolate chips ready.” That kind of careful preparation makes it easier to get the job done, and translates to homework and other life skills, Rainis said.
Partway through their week, the campers tested out their new skills in the Vita d’Or, a cooking competition whose name is a nod to the celebrated French contest Bocuse d’Or.
For the UD version, the fifth through seventh graders participating in the first camp gathered around stainless steel tables in the Vita Nova kitchen. They were divided into Black and Gold teams, each responsible for an entree and a dessert.
Rainis and her assistant, hospitality business management major Justin Guo (class of ‘24), gave each group only a slip of paper with a partial recipe on it. To get the rest, the young chefs had to complete that portion of the recipe then answer a culinary trivia question.
It was not, Rainis emphasized, a race, as she didn’t wish to mix kids in a hurry with knives and hot dishes. Rather, they’d be judged by how well they followed instructions, whether they measured correctly and with the right utensils, and how well they kept their areas clean as they worked.
Set loose on their mystery dishes, the kids bustled around looking for ingredients in what turned into a bit of a scavenger hunt.
“Where do I get tangerine juice?” one asked.
“We need a teaspoon,” another said.
“Sharp behind,” one girl warned those in front of her as she carried a knife to her table.
“Is this really white chocolate?” another camper asked, holding a large block.
One girl stood on tiptoe, peering over the rim of a bowl of a commercial mixer.
Rainis and Guo, holding clipboards, strolled among the groups, keeping score, offering advice, and demonstrating technique. As they worked, it was clear students had been paying attention earlier in camp, like the boy carefully dicing onions, steadying the blade with one hand while chopping.
As the dishes took shape, savory smells began spreading through the kitchen, from vinegar to melting chocolate and hot chicken, widely varied but not unpleasant together — the smell of a future meal.
Vita Nova’s camp had been held for some years, but took a prolonged hiatus until this year under Rainis’ leadership.
Rainis started her chef instructor position last fall, but Vita Nova wasn’t new to her, as she went through the program as a UD student.
“I like to say it’s my sixth year, but first as an instructor,” she said.
It’s fun to demystify cooking at the camp, Rainis said. “A lot of my students, even at the college level, come in really intimidated to a kitchen … there’s a lot of hesitation when they’re using a knife and using heat.”
Although Rainis never helped with the summer program while she was in college, this is not her first culinary camp rodeo. At a previous job, she started and ran camps for kids and also taught high school students. She’s tapped into a lot of what she learned to help restart Livin’ La Vita Nova.
There’s limited room in the kitchen (and a limit to how many kids staff can keep an eye on), so attendance is capped at 15 each week.
“We filled up very quickly this year, which was fantastic,” Rainis said.
Sessions feature games and themes like baking day or around-the-world day, and campers even get hospitality tips and lessons on table manners and etiquette from Vita Nova restaurant manager Lacey Leatherwood. At the end, kids can demonstrate their new skills and prepare lunch in a showcase for their families and other visitors, like Srikanth Beldona, chair of the hospitality department, and Vita Nova Director Nick Waller.
The finale was on the mind of camper Emily Koffenberger, age 9, from Pennsylvania. “It’s really fun,” she said of camp, “and on Friday we get to make dishes by ourselves, and we get to choose what dish we want to make.”
“The students get really excited to kind of show off, so that’s always a fun day,” Rainis said, and kids end up making everything from goulash to cobbler.
Koffenberger said she wanted to learn how to cook dinner all by herself.
“Same,” added Emerson Rogalski, age 10, of Newark, who was helping make sugar cookies.
“I think this camp was really fun and exciting because it teaches us new tricks and tips and makes us better chefs, so if that’s something you want to pursue you can,” said another cookie maker, Norah Durbano, age 11, also from Newark.
The camp also results in delicious meals. Not too many summer campers can say they made their own lunch.
After Black Team squeaked out a win in the competition, thanks to extra attention to safety, the campers were left to admire the results of their work.
“Everyone has to take pictures of these because they’re so cool,” Koffenberger said, holding up her phone.