Washington University’s Camp Kumquat Inspires Next Generation of Food Enthusiasts

Campers and counselors at Camp Kumquat prepare a garden bed for planting.

Campers and counselors at Camp Kumquat prepare a garden bed for squash planting. Photo courtesy of Alyssa Tutterow.

On a sticky, 95-degree summer afternoon in St. Louis I headed to Washington University in St. Louis’s student-run farm, The Burning Kumquat, to meet the newest farmer recruits — nine 11-year- olds.

These St. Louis sixth graders were at the farm for the third summer of Camp Kumquat.

Camp Kumquat is an urban farm summer camp where middle-school children can get their hands dirty and learn about growing food and sustainability. Washington University student farmers Jenny Fung, Alyssa Tutterow, and Mara Nelson dedicated months to dreaming, planning, and organizing two 2-week sessions of jam-packed summer fun. As a recent Burning Kumquat alum myself, I was excited to visit and meet their crew.

I had serendipitously picked a great afternoon to be a camper.  Wil Fernandez-Cruz was just setting up his stove top in the garden to cook lunch with the super-local Kumquat produce. Wil is Bon Appétit’s new Chef de Cuisine at Ibby’s, the popular Washington University campus bistro that highlights local flavors and seasonal ingredients.

“Go harvest!” Wil commanded, and the kids scattered in all directions. Buzzing around the garden, they snapped off leaves of Lacinato kale and mesclun greens; pulled up kohlrabi, onions, and carrots; and picked fresh cilantro, basil, and dill. They returned back to the picnic tables and eagerly washed the produce.

As Wil surveyed the vegetables and herbs, he unloaded his other ingredients: avocado, lemon juice, tomatoes, and grass-fed beef tenderloin and tilapia fillets from a campus event the night before.

The campers gathered around as he started cutting the tomatoes. “We’re going to make honest food today,” he said. “You know why I say that? Because it’s simple, and you take pride in it.”

The resulting menu was indeed simple — simply delicious: tomato salad with capers, kohlrabi slaw, fresh garden greens in a lemon vinaigrette, and pan-seared fish and beef fillets.

His incredible food did not go unappreciated. As we munched contentedly, I heard one camper say, “This salad is awesome!” Another shouted, “This is the best fish I’ve ever had!”

Chef Wil Fernandez-Cruz prepares grass-fed beef tenderloin and kohlrabi salad for a special lunch at camp.

Chef Wil Fernandez-Cruz prepares grass-fed beef tenderloin and kohlrabi salad for a special lunch at camp.

During lunch I got to hear all about the other activities at camp. It did not take long for me to get pretty jealous. During their first week, campers visited with a local beekeeper, took a trip to a local grocery store for a healthy food scavenger hunt, and explored Missouri’s ecosystems at a nearby ecology center.  The day before my visit, they’d learned about the wonders of fermentation and yogurt making with Will Fischer in Washington University’s Office of Sustainability. At camp, he’s fondly known as Dairy Dude.

After we had finished our last course, I had a chance to walk around the farm. A couple of campers led me over to a new cylindrical bin in the back of the garden. “It’s worm juice!” they said, pointing to a liquid coming out of a spigot at the bottom. Peering into the top I saw worms wriggling through shredded newspapers and vegetable scraps. This was their vermicomposting bin and the “worm juice” (also known as worm tea) came from the nutrient-rich worm castings. “It’s really good fertilizer for our plants,” explained a camper.

Camp pretty much seems to be a magical place, thanks to the passionate group of people behind it. I’m pleased to have joined the Bon Appétit team that I used to work with as a student farmer with the Burning Kumquat: Washington University General Manager Nadeem Siddiqui has been one of the greatest advocates for the Burning Kumquat and camp since its first summer in 2009. The team provides nutritious lunches and snacks for the campers, activities with the chefs, and an end-of-session celebration for their families. This support, coupled with grants from the university, allows camp to remain available to all children no matter their family’s economic situation.

I left the farm with my belly full of delicious food and my heart full of pride. Camp was teaching the fundamentals of food appreciation by connecting children to the people and natural processes that make it all possible. It is amazing what Bon Appétit chefs, staff, and student farmers can accomplish when they partner together. I’m so glad I got a taste.