“I got into eating at a young age,” jokes Nick DeCamp, the culinary instructor at Amos House, a nonprofit serving the homeless and unemployed since 1976 in Providence.
When DeCamp took an early retirement from the Providence Public School system, where he taught elementary school, he began looking for his second act. His wife suggested cooking. That led him to the RI Food Community Bank’s Community Kitchen, a now-defunct free program that gave students the skills to work in the culinary industry. “That was a huge turning point in my life,” he says. “Within the first hour, on the first day, I knew I found my calling.”
But part of that calling remained in teaching. His first job after graduation was with Cookie Place in Providence, teaching culinary arts to students with disabilities. In 2018, he landed at Amos House as an instructor in their Culinary Education Program, which launched in 2002.
“The three most important things in cooking are knife skills, knife skills, knife skills. It’s the foundation of everything we do in the kitchen.” DeCamp teaches not only how to move the knife efficiently and safely, but also how to care for it. “It’s the first thing an employer looks for, how you pick up a knife.”
DeCamp, who makes his home in South Kingstown, works to expose students to as many different flavor profiles as possible. “There’s a difference between a Chinese dish and an Italian dish,” he says, noting that the aromatics for each cuisine are different. “What are you going to put at the bottom of your pan?”
The pandemic meant less students could take the course at a time, but with fewer enrolled, they were able to cut the 16-week course down to eight. The first three weeks are spent learning “soft skills,” things like communication and handling conflict, as well as financial training. Required reading and math classes are contextualized for the individual programs. Culinary math, for example, works with fractions.
The students spend the next five weeks with DeCamp in practical training, which includes the aforementioned knife skills, as well as allergen training and CPR. “They walk out of the program with three industry certificates,” DeCamp says, which makes them more attractive to employers.
More than simply practical training – like ways to thicken a sauce, or different methods of cooking eggs – DeCamp teaches students “the dance of the kitchen,” learning how to negotiate all the moving parts, from dodging baking racks to working with enormous ovens.
“There’s a difference between waking up and having to do something and getting to do something,” he says. “When I wake up, I think ‘I get to cook today’ or ‘I get to teach risotto today.’” And when a student gets a job offer? “I feel like I got the job!”
When former pupils come back to visit, their stories of “I moved up the line,” or “I’m running my own kitchen” make his job particularly rewarding. DeCamp spends most of his down time networking with chefs and restaurant owners to place graduating students in industry jobs. One of his former students, he notes with pride, is an ex-gang member with a prison history who is now the second in command in one of the state’s most prestigious kitchens.
“For me, eating and cooking is universal. Food is anthropology, it’s history, it’s art and philosophy. Food is what brings people together. Food is memory,” DeCamp says, then he shares a sly smile. “You got to be a little crazy about it.”
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