This summer camp smells AMAZING

by Jamie Gonzales  |   

UAA Culinary Boot Camp 2014

Chef Vern Wolfram with his class of intermediate bakers. Ted Kincaid/University of Alaska Anchorage.

It's summer camp season. Parents everywhere are wondering where to feature that popsicle stick birdhouse and industrial strength clay vase their favorite camper just brought home. Or, if they were lucky enough to nab a spot in Culinary and Bakery Boot Camp at UAA for their 11-17 year old, they might just be making room for fresh-from-the-oven treats and a pair of helping hands in the kitchen.

As you step through the doors of the Cuddy Hall kitchens, you first notice the smells: fresh cucumber and tomato followed by a hint of hot cinnamon roll wafting in from the bakery. Next it's the cacophony of pots and pans banging and little bursts of whistling from the dishwashers in their tall, paper toques. It's day three of a week-long culinary camp.

"On Monday, everyone is nervous. The next day they're all singing at the sinks," said Lynette Peplow, the academic assistant for Culinary Arts who has coordinated the June and July camps for the last seven years. "We get a lot of repeat kids. Some will do all three camps (beginning, intermediate and advanced) in one summer."

Chef Tim Doebler, director of UAA Culinary Arts, rounded up his advanced culinary campers-distinguished from the intermediate and beginning kids by their black aprons-for a field trip to the Consortium Library. Shouts of "Yes, Chef!" echoed through the kitchen as he called them from their stations and they rushed to wipe down a counter or finish scrubbing one last pot. They're headed across campus to take advantage of the library's extensive culinary section to plan menus. Each day the culinary students make lunch for all the campers-between 30­ and 40 in a given week-and the bakery students come through with dessert for the troops.

Making rolls with Chef Vern

Next door in the bakery, Chef Vern Wolfram is surrounded by his intermediate bakers at a prep table. They're leaning on the wooden butcher block table, eyeing the sectioned lumps of freshly risen yeast dough in front of them. In just a few minutes they'll be mastering the tricky maneuvers needed to make knotted dinner rolls.

"So what do we want to do after we cut the dough? We take the dough and round it up into a smooth ball. If I work it too much, I'm going to have to let it rest again," he explained before fitting the dough into an oiled Duchess pan.

Patiently awaiting instructions for roll-shaping. Ted Kincaid/University of Alaska Anchorage.

Patiently awaiting instructions for roll-shaping. Ted Kincaid/University of Alaska Anchorage.

"This works on the Duchess machine. You will be amazed at this," he said, placing the pan into the machine with a head-high pull-down lever. "I pull the handle down and knock the air out, release the blade and voila! It comes out in 36 even pieces."

The class was duly impressed, even oohing and aahing as predicted by Chef Vern. With help from his lab aide, Tammy Bierman, who is steps away from her associates degree in UAA's Culinary Arts program, they showed the students how to round the individual pieces, roll them out into ropes and loop them around thumb and forefinger to create a double twist knot. There was a lot of giggling as the kids got the hang of it. After a few do-overs Chef Vern was satisfied with their progress.

"Yes, that's it, yes! Good, now make 500 of them," he said with a laugh. "You can amaze all your friends at Thanksgiving. Make nice little dinner knots."

At Chef Vern's request, Tammy navigated over to the other side of the bakery to peer at the racks of cinnamon rolls, an earlier project, rotating inside the one-car-garage-sized oven. Verdict: a few more minutes to go.

Choosing a favorite

The edges of the bakery and the hallways are lined with racks of cooling cinnamon rolls, twisted soft pretzels and loaves of bread, all destined to head home with campers at the end of the day.

"They're all made from scratch. No mixes," said Chef Vern nodding at the racks. "That's not standard in the industry-everyone uses mixes."

Tammy ticked off a few of her favorite recent pastries to come out of Chef Vern's bakery. Lunch included a creamy chocolate innovation that was a hit with everyone. She shook her head describing some delectable cinnamon sugar biscuits, another favorite from Chef Vern. "He's a dangerous man," she said.

This week's crash course in baking will take these 18 intermediate students from cookies to cupcakes. Monday was cookies, Tuesday was quick breads (scones, muffins), Wednesday was yeast bread, Thursday will be pastries (pies and tarts) and Friday is cupcake day.

Chef Jack Nurmi of King Career Center talks pasta with intermediate culinary students. Ted Kincaid/University of Alaska Anchorage.

Chef Jack Nurmi of King Career Center talks pasta with intermediate culinary students. Ted Kincaid/University of Alaska Anchorage.

"What's your favorite day so far this week?" shouted Chef Vern to the busily working students. Overwhelming shouts of "This one!" drown out a few shouts of "Yesterday!" He chuckled and predicted by Friday they'd all be in love with cupcake day where they'll churn out about 250.

In about 15 minutes, the students blazed through mounds of dough and shaped dozens of knotted dinner rolls, destined for proofing racks. Under Chef Vern's direction, they loaded up a rack and wrapped it with plastic wrap.

Their last assignments of the day? Dishes and cleanup, tasks the campers tackled with high spirits.

In addition to new recipes and hands-on food prep, the students are all learning to navigate in a professional kitchen. They leave with a better understanding of safety and how to work collaboratively with a full kitchen or bakery staff.

"I tell the kids, I'm not up here and you're down here, I'm meeting you somewhere in the middle and we're going to work together," Chef Vern said. Then after a pause, he continued, "Well, there is one thing: Students know I never wash pots and pans. If Tammy catches me over here washing pots and pans, she yells at everyone. They're not supposed to ever allow me to get into that dishpan, even if I dirty the stuff."

Having a good cleanup crew is vital to successful restaurant management, Tammy agreed. Smiling, she added, "When I open my own place, the first thing I'm going to do is hire a dishwasher, pay them really well and keep them happy."

The best part of culinary and bakery summer camp? Nobody goes home empty-handed. (Not even this writer who was gifted a pan of fresh cinnamon rolls.) The young bakers will be heading home soon with new skills, fresh treats, chef jackets, toques, aprons and, for a few, an inkling of what they want to be when they grow up.

Since the summer camps started back in 2004, UAA's Culinary Arts program has welcomed 13 former campers to their degree program.

For more information about the culinary and bakery camps, visit the website. Registration typically opens in early March.

This story written by Jamie Gonzales for the UAA Office of University Advancement.

Creative Commons License "This summer camp smells AMAZING" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.