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Culinary Camp Opens World of Haute – And Hot – Cuisine to Young Chefs

What’s on the menu at Dining Services’ Culinary Camp? These aspiring chefs are making buffalo cauliflower tacos — a Virginia Tech favorite.

When the Grillfield food truck at Virginia Tech introduced buffalo cauliflower tacos, they were an instant hit. So much so that when they rotated the menu item out last spring, the protest was instantaneous and completely unexpected.

“The calls and emails were constant,” says Executive Chef Randy Van Dyke, who wears the top chef hat for D2 and the food trucks. “We actually had to rotate it back into the menu mid-semester to quiet the uproar.”

Guess what was on the menu when Dining Services’ Culinary Camp opened this summer?

Ten young culinary students – aged 9 to 14 – spent a day learning how to make Virginia Tech’s buffalo sauce from scratch. Replete with their tiny chef’s hats and chef coats monogrammed with their names, this new generation of future Tech students were acting out their part in the evolution of buffalo cauliflower tacos from a campus favorite to a campus tradition.

Culinary Camp 100 has itself become a rather beloved campus tradition.

Since 2013, when the first Culinary Camp 100 class opened its doors to area youngsters, Chef Van Dyke and his team have been shepherding an increasing number of would-be chefs into the world of haute – and sometimes just hot – cuisine.

“Our sauce is Texas Pete hot sauce, mixed with butter and…” Chef de Cuisine Dell Peters calls out to the kids as they begin combining their ingredients. Mike Hundley, Dining Services’ shift leader at DX, joins the students and gives them the special knives they will use to chop the fresh cauliflower into perfectly-sized florets for frying.

The knives designed specifically for young chefs are brought in for the camp. Learning safe frying techniques and proper knife handling are key aspects of the food safety training students receive from day one. The room is filled with constant banter relaying tidbits of the trade. “Hot things are kept at what temperature? That’s right, 140 degrees.”

The kids appear to be eating it up. Literally.

When the hand-crafted slaw with its kohlrabi, vinegar, and myriad mystical, magical ingredients has marinated, it’s time to chow down. The students flow from the Hokie Stadium kitchen – where the classes are held – into a banquet room. It’s time to sample the tacos that caused all the fuss.

At the end of each Culinary Camp, students prepare an array of their favorite menu items for their parents as part of a special graduation meal. By that time, they’ve rotated from testing vinegars and sauces to making ricotta cheese from scratch. They’ve toured Virginia Tech’s Homefield Farm and learned all about sustainable agriculture and organic growing methods. They understand menu design, individual allergens, and how to make mirepoix.

Camp 100 has become so popular, Dining Services added a second week of the introductory course each summer. Slots still sell out with a waiting list. Virginia Tech’s Culinary Camp program has also expanded to include Camp 200, taught by Chef John Scherer, as a follow-up to Camp 100.  Both Camp 200 and the Baking/Desserts edition, taught by Chef Mark Bratton CEC, stay fully enrolled.

For the first time, this year, Culinary Camp added a specialized camp for youngsters who dream of operating a food truck one day. Both of Virginia Tech’s state-of-the-art food trucks are utilized in the Culinary Camp: Food Truck Edition, July 30-August 3, 2018.

“It’s the only week of camp that hasn’t sold out yet,” says Virginia Tech Dining Services’ Laura Pontier. “I think we have 2 or 3 spots left. But that’s only because it’s brand new to Culinary Camp this year. The concept of the food truck is one of the edgy trends that has taken off in the culinary world, and we want to teach aspiring entrepreneurs in the community how to create their own food truck concept.”

Virginia Tech’s award-winning Dining Services has consistently remained at the top of national rankings. Staying abreast of edgy food trends has always been a part of that magic, and they carry that tradition into Culinary Camp.

“Some of the kids just want to learn skills and cook at home with their parents,” said Katie Jerierski, a Virginia Tech graduate student and Hokie Grill supervisor who is spending her summer as a Culinary Camp counselor. “But some of them have serious goals in the culinary world. We take this very seriously. We hold them to all the same standards we hold our own kitchen staff.”

For the next few weeks this summer, young students with different gifts, personalities, and aspirations will assemble batters, soups, and plans for their lives on the second floor of Hokie Lane Stadium in a small out-of-the-way kitchen – with recipes for the stuff dreams are made of.

Culinary Camp: Food Truck Edition runs July 30-August 3 for students ages 14-18. To sign up for one of the few remaining slots, email [email protected] or call 540-231-9205.

Written by Donna Segura; photo and video by Darren Van Dyke.

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