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Schooled on food
Chef leads culinary campers
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Forsyth County News

It takes a special kid to suck the head of a crawfish.

But after this week's kids cooking camp, crawfish became a favorite food for sixth-grader Jeff Durden -- head and all. The culinary camper also tried venison, lamb, quail eggs and baklava.

Eating is one of several favorite activities in the annual three-day camp at Cumming First United Methodist Church.
Durden doesn't shy away from unconventional dishes.

"Because you can not only eat just junk food," he said. "You can eat other foods."

That's right along the lines of the mindset camp instructor Tony Santoriello encourages.

"The main thing I try to do is get kids to eat better and more importantly, get their parents to eat better," he said.

"I try to show them there's a lot more food out there than hamburgers and hotdogs. So many kids are very finicky and picky, and most people don't realize it, but it stems from their parents."

Santoriello, who says he was inspired by his Italian grandmother's cuisine, is the executive chef for Panduit Corp., a Cumming-based communications products company.

This is Santoriello's third year leading the camp. He started it at the church he attends, simply because he wanted to pass along his culinary knowledge to children.

In fact, he said, he uses vacation time to teach the 15-20 campers the basics of food preparation and presentation.

In teaching the course, Santoriello spoke to the elementary school students in "kitchen lingo," punctuated by the ideas of self-reliance and frugality. He also shared stories of his days in culinary school.

Treating the kitchen like a laboratory is a fun approach, he said, but sometimes older kids are less inclined to try new "creations."

Santoriello has a lot of experience prepping little ones to eat different dishes.

"I tell the mothers, 'you have to sell food to your kids,'" he said.

Sticking to the same chain restaurants and fast food joints can stunt a child's appreciation for flavors, he said. Besides, fast meals mean less family time.

Cooking camper Taylor Friedel was receptive to his message.

"If you never try new foods, then you'll never know what it tastes like," she said.

Santoriello shared all sorts of lessons. For instance, he explained, items made from scratch tend to taste better and cost less.

And, when making taco salad, Santoriello didn't buy chips. He had the children chop up and fry flour tortillas.
A little prep work went a long way with the taco salad, as well.

Students chopped and diced whole tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, lettuce and other fresh veggies. Nothing was prepackaged, precut or canned.

"A can of corn is about 69 cents," Santoriello said as he cut from fresh corn. "And this ear of corn gets a quarter and we're talking much better flavor."

Neither was Santoriello stingy with his "secrets."

"Put a little bit of ketchup in the ground beef to keep it moist," he said, when making the taco salad.

When making Mex-Tex rice, he also told kids to stretch plastic wrap over the lips of the pan, then completely cover the plastic in aluminum foil.

This keeps the moisture in and cuts down on the cooking time.

In another story, he told campers that while working as a chef for IBM, he developed a great chili recipe -- entirely by accident.

He mistakenly dumped curry instead of cumin into his batch of chili. And then, instead of tossing out the whole batch, he only tossed out half and added the rest with cumin.

"It turned out to be the best chili I ever made," he said.

No matter the method, Santoriello said, trying new flavors can be both a challenge and a lot of fun.

New entrées, he said, may have to be tried on several occasions before kids appreciate them.

Then again, another trick, he said, is to take any food, wrap it in a tortilla, and tell children it's some kind of burrito. Chances are, they'll eat it up.