Every year hundreds of kids ages 9 and up descend on Little Rock’s restaurant scene. No, they are not child labor, they are part of the amazing culinary camp put on each year by the Clinton Presidential Center.
The camp takes kids through a four-year journey to teach cooking skills and introduce them to the restaurant world. The camps are a week-long and go from the middle of June to the first of August each year.
Throughout their journey they get the chance to visit places like Tanner Farms to see what goes into producing the food that is used by many of the best restaurants in the area. They visit restaurants and meet with some of the top chefs in Little Rock. They learn valuable techniques and knife skills. Through it all the kids learn to cook very well, but most importantly it teaches them to respect the work that goes into growing, preparing, and cooking the food that comes out of restaurants.
We have been lucky enough to work with the kids over the past three years to help judge cook offs where the kids are allowed to showcase the skills that they have learned in the camp. Both the third and fourth year students have multiple opportunities throughout their week to prepare meals. Ben E Keith sponsors the camp, and as students graduate they receive chef jackets and culinary tool sets, such as knife rolls, to help them in their culinary journey.
This year (and last year) we worked with the food truck showdown. The camp brings in two food trucks to mentor the kids on how to cook in small spaces and limited resources. This year Hot Rod Wieners and Fork in the Road came to work with the students.
The day starts with planning the meal, then heading out to the River Market farmer’s market and Stratton’s Market to pick up fresh seasonal produce. The kids then work in teams at small stations that contain limited prep space and equipment to prepare and cook the food. Finally judges come in (this year myself, THV’s Dawn Scott, and Kevin Shalin) to rank the teams and determine a winner.
In both years that we have participated in the judging we have been blown away with the quality of the food that the kids produce. They are great at adjusting and creating recipes quickly based on the seasonal availability that they can find at the markets. The Clinton Center’s chefs and food truck owners each work with a team, but the kids come up with and prepare the food by themselves.
Not all the kids will enter the restaurant world obviously, but it does teach a strong appreciation for the work that goes into every meal you eat out. Some of the kids likely leave inspired by the camp, and based on the food we have been able to sample over the past three years, the future of restaurants in Little Rock is bright because of it.