Summer camp spreads love of cooking to budding chefs

They are always full of water, impossible to paddle, and hold nothing heavier than a little salad.

Chef Gordon Brown prepares mashed potatoes with an avid group of young cooks in training at the Beaches Recreation Centre summer cooking camp. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson
Chef Gordon Brown prepares mashed potatoes with an avid group of young cooks in training at the Beaches Recreation Centre summer cooking camp.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

But kids in the Beaches Rec Centre’s summer cooking camp are loving their cucumber canoes.

Gordon Brown, known as “Chef Gordon,” says the six- to 12-year-olds in the camp are enjoying something new this year – picking cucumbers and other greens straight from the new community garden at Ashbridges Bay Park.

“The whole idea is so perfect,” said Brown, explaining how the Friends of the Beach Parks set aside some garden space just for the kids.

Now, as they pick their own cukes, kale, beans, lettuce and herbs, they see food go from “dirt to dinner.”

Starting with a one-hour after-school program in 2009, Brown has seen the Rec Centre’s kids’ cooking camps grow to include five after-school classes and a series of August day camps.

“Children, four o’clock, and food. How could you go wrong?” he said, when asked why the school-year class is so popular. After an hour-long class, everyone goes home with a dish they have helped make themselves.

At the summer camp, Mya, 10, said she has already made a lasagna at home.

Beatrice, also 10, made her mom a vanilla birthday cake with fondant icing molded into abstract shapes.

But if her first taste of raw garlic is any clue, she still has more tastes to acquire.

“It was so spicy,” she said. “It was like a jalapeno pepper, but worse.”

Brown, who studied cooking at George Brown College and baked at St. John’s Bakery, also teaches youths, adults, even seniors.

Every class shares a common appeal – you’re going to eat every day, Brown says, so you might as well learn to do it better.

But for kids’ classes, Brown does take a unique approach.

For example, no one can say the word “hate” in class.

Brown understands that with their extra-sensitive palates, many kids get overpowered by strong flavours. He has them express that another way.

“If they don’t like something, they tell me they have strong feelings about it,” he said, smiling.

“It’s great to hear a little kid say, ‘I have strong feelings about mushrooms.’”

Brown is not above getting silly to make a point.

Before they get to use their paring knives, Brown mimics many ways of holding one – straight out while blindfolded, in the middle of a sword fight, or point-down at his side.

The kids yell out a chorus of “yes” or “no” as he goes.

Besides learning kitchen safety, how to shop at grocery stores and farmers’ markets, how to chiffonade a head of lettuce or cut a carrot at 10 o’clock, Brown also shows students the value of the food they’re making.

Every month, the students prepare two casseroles for the downtown Good Shepherd mission, which serves the homeless. All the expenses are covered by fundraisers held by the Rec Centre’s Advisory Council.

Delivering those dishes to Good Shepherd means a lot to Brown. So do the little things he hears closer to home.

In June, after his last after-school class wrapped up, Brown heard someone call “Chef Gordon” on Queen Street.

A boy’s mother stopped him and announced that he had an important message – he had just made his dad French toast for Father’s Day, all by himself.

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