Gulf Coast culinary community plants seeds of knowledge

Lifestyle Editor
Posted 7/28/23

ORANGE BEACH — Each summer for the past nine years, a perfect storm of eager children, willing volunteers and Gulf Coast culinary professionals converge for a week of delicious fun for the …

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Gulf Coast culinary community plants seeds of knowledge


ORANGE BEACH — Each summer for the past nine years, a perfect storm of eager children, willing volunteers and Gulf Coast culinary professionals converge for a week of delicious fun for the Expect Excellence Culinary Summer Camp.

Campers come from all over to participate. Some families even plan their summer vacation at the beach around camp dates. And each year, the camp sells out as soon as registration opens, and the call for more weeks or adult camp options is heard by the organizers.

Culinary Camp is the brainchild of Jonathan and Jessica Langston. The Langstons and Krista Williams lead a team of volunteers, staff and guest chefs. Campers learn not only cooking skills but also cleanliness, food handling, knife safety and teamwork.

In a vacation destination like Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, summer is the busiest time of year but the culinary professionals take a few hours out of their day to teach a room full of elementary-aged children how to cook.

Kimberly Asbury, pastry chef and general manager of BuzzCatz Coffee and Sweets, has participated in eight or nine camps. It isn't easy to slip away for a half day, but she said she does whatever it takes to make sure she has enough staff to cover the shop while she is gone.

"It definitely is a busy time of year for sure, but this is important to me," Asbury said. "I love the idea of inspiring kids to cook or bake. Children are so much more open to trying new foods and flavors if they have the opportunity to be a part of the process."

Asbury said she sees the same faces come back year after year, allowing her to watch them grow and visit her in the shop.

"I have a bit of an advantage because these kids are young enough that any dessert or sweet treat recipe makes for the 'best day ever.' I strive to make sure that these kids go home excited about what they have made with me and hope that they go home and get their parents to recreate it," Asbury said. "It makes me happy to know that sharing my passion for what I love to do gives these kids joy even if it's just for a couple of hours on a single day in the middle of the summer. It is a great feeling to know I left a positive impression on them in any way I could."

Jonathan Kastner, owner of Southern Chili Lab, is heavily involved with the Expect Excellence culinary program year-round. This year, he taught the children how to make chili crisp and potato salad.

"We had some kids that tasted it, but it was spicy. We made potato salad as well, which is my favorite thing to top with chili crisp," Kastner said. "I think every kid in the South should know how to make potato salad properly."

This summer has been a busy one for Kastner as he helped with Culinary Camp, worked his regular job and also taught the Chemistry of Food class at Gulf Shores High School. Despite the busy schedule, Kastner sees planting the culinary seed young as important not only to expose the children to opportunities but to help the industry.

"We are giving them insight into what we do as a community. All of us individual chefs do different stuff. Giving them the opportunity to see that and that they have these different avenues of going into the culinary industry," Kastner said. "I didn't have this as a kid. They already have this base knowledge so when they do get a little older it will be much easier to transition into a kitchen, bakery or like what I am doing in Gulf Shores on the chemistry side of thing."

Kastner said the culinary industry needs people.

"It is a dying industry big time. The industry is flourishing, but as far as employees go, there are so many people not going into culinary because it is a hard job. You don't start at the top. You have to work your way up, and there are so many people that are not willing to work the line and work the way up to be a chef," Kastner said. "I know so many restauranteurs and chefs, and I don't know a single one that is not hiring. There are not enough people willing to cook."

Josie Taylor is a new business owner who found out about Culinary Camp from Jessica Langston and volunteered to help. Her online-based business, Caffeinatrix, sells small-batch organic coffee. She curated fun recipes to teach the children, which is right in her area of expertise. She spent 16 years in the teaching industry.

"It is neat to work with kids and see the wonder on their faces when they see what they did or what they made. It is not about come see what I can do, it is about let me teach you what you can do," Taylor said. "I feel that every child has innate abilities and interests that need to be fostered. When you come together as a community, you know how it says it takes a village, it does. When we have such an amazing community, like this just opens up all the opportunities to achieve their full potential and things they have no idea they were talented at."

Williams, one of the organizers, said one of her motivators is teaching children life skills in a safe space.

"Bringing the community into it is good and shows the community cares about them (the campers). When a community invests in the children, the children are more likely to invest in the community to make it a better place, stay, raise their kids and to grow the community," Williams said. "I really feel that Orange Beach does a really good job of that."

Jonathan Langston has spent his adult life in the culinary industry. He created the camp to inspire future generations and share his love and passion for cooking. After nine years, the program has been running long enough to see results. Langston has kept tabs on past campers, and he calculated that four of the campers from the first Culinary Camp have gone on to work in the industry.