How I Found My Passion at Camp
Growing up in Southern California, I was bullied in school because I was usually the tallest one in my class and I was an introvert. I didn’t fit in there, so Girl Scouting was a place I could be my true self and—from the moment I joined as a Brownie—it became my place of refuge, all the way through high school.
I am a professional chef now, but I first learned to cook as a Girl Scout. Cooking was very much a part of what I did as a Girl Scout—we did bake sales as fundraisers and also brought our goodies to senior centers as donations. I earned every cooking badge. As a Senior, I participated in a troop activity to make dinner for all our families, and it was the first time people enjoyed my food; a pivotal moment for me.
At Camp Osito Rancho on Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains (a 160-acre property owned by Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles), I always ended up being the one cooking over the fire because nobody else wanted to do it. And I loved it! One summer, my folks came to pick me up and I was covered in pancake batter and I reeked of smoke. I wasn’t sure they were going to let me in the car!
During college, I worked at the camp as an assistant and sometimes would help in the kitchen. The summer I was 21, the husband of the woman who ran the kitchen fell ill, and she had to leave suddenly. The camp director asked if I could take over kitchen duties and handle the first meal. I did a good a job, so I kept on cooking, and eventually she offered me the job for the rest of the summer. I felt a moment of panic; what if I couldn’t do it? I had two assistants, but I had to make three meals a day for more than 200 people from June through August. But then the realization set in that I could do it.
The cook had left a general outline of the meals, and that was it—no recipes or any other directions. So I took the menus and figured out how to deliver on them. That summer, I realized that I could create something out of what seemed like nothing, and I learned how to use spices. I was experimenting, but I didn’t get any complaints! It was a lot of work, but I loved it. Maybe I was too young to know that I should be overwhelmed. It gave me a real sense of pride.
After that, I considered going to culinary school, but I had an art scholarship, so I stayed the course with art, eventually doing special effects for movies. Years later I retired from that, realizing that I had really always wanted to cook. So, later in life, I went to cooking school and became a private chef and then an executive pastry chef for a catering company before starting my own bakery.
Four years ago, I took over the cooking school at Fry’s in Phoenix, Arizona. It’s hands-on and I run cooking classes on everything from baking to sushi for the public six days a week. I also do a lot of work with Girl Scout troops on their cooking badges, which makes me feel like my life has come full circle, since Girl Scouts is where I first discovered my lifelong love of cooking.
Omei Eaglerider (aka Chef O)
Executive Chef, Fry’s Cooking School