Teaching More than Knife Skills at Chef’s Choice Summer Camp

Chef Dion takes a selfie with campers.

For 3 weeks this summer, JWU Providence’s Cuisinart Center for Culinary Excellence was filled with the sounds of chopping, stir-frying, and good-natured commands like, “Get your tables wiped down!” and “We’ve got an hour until service!” But rather than college-age chefs-in-training, the subjects were kids and teens looking to sharpen their cooking skills in a professional-grade kitchen.

Five days of classes gives ample time to explore regional and global dishes, as well as baking and pastry applications. But it’s also a great way to build leadership skills, communication, critical teamwork and creativity. In the afternoon, the campers head to the Wildcat Center for more traditional summer camp activities, like interactive games.

"We get the same kids back again each summer. It’s fun to watch them grow up!"

Chef John Dion has been teaching summer camp sessions for years, and he loves watching the students mature over the course of a week — and sometimes more. “We get the same kids back again each summer,” he said. “It’s fun to watch them grow up — it’s like college!”

A typical day’s menu mixes family favorites (pizza, sliders, baked potato wedges) with easy-to-make snacks (cookies, brownies, rosemary crackers). The goal is to get everything out by lunchtime, with enough snacks left over for the afternoon. It can be tough to keep everyone on a schedule, but for the most part, the Week 3 group is focused and proactive about their assigned tasks.

Teaching Assistant (TA) Juliet Faas is helping the Pad-Thai-with-crunchy-slaw group with their knife cuts. Other than a pause to acknowledge the “ewwww” factor of fish sauce (which everyone gamely agrees will be more subtle in the finished dish), they’re pretty focused, too.

At another work station, TA Max De Leon Aubrey is working on making rosemary crackers with a student named Leah, who cooks a lot with her family and is trying to become a pescatarian. (Dinner favorite sausage and peppers has proved particularly tough to give up.) Max is showing her how to roll out the dough, then run it through the hand-cranked pasta maker to get the right thickness of dough. Afterwards, they take turns brushing the savory dough with olive oil prior to baking it.

As lunchtime nears, Chef Dion gathers everyone around for a wok demo. The giant tilt-skillet wok sits atop an open flame and can be tilted and rotated to take advantage of extreme heat or relative cool, depending on what the chef requires. Chef Dion emphasizes to the summer campers to have all their mise-en-place (literally, “everything in its place,” a chef term for having ingredients chopped, measured and at the ready) next to the wok so they can work quickly. “We’re going to be working in small batches!” he tells them. The kitchen quickly fills with the aroma of sizzling vegetables.

Lunch is almost ready.


Summer camp students practicing their grilling skills.

Campers doing prep work.

Chef Chloe

Chef Dion demonstration.

Annika and Alex

Chef Steven