For more than 10 years, The Grace Museum has hosted summer culinary camps in Abilene, teaching the basics of cooking and instilling the love of food preparation in children from all over the Big Country.

For the first several years of the camp, The Grace partnered with Texas State Technical College Culinary School. Next, Amanda Spell from Amanda Joy’s Catering taught the camp at Highland Church of Christ. When Spell decided to stop catering, The Grace went looking for a new partner and found one in its next-door neighbor, Cypress Street Station.

Cypress Street owners Terry and Amanda O’Connor quickly agreed to partner with The Grace in putting together the summer camp. First, though, Kathryn Mitchell, Director of Education at The Grace, had to begin the search for a new kitchen.

Enter The LIFT, the new home for Abilene ISD’s Culinary Arts program.

“Several of us at The Grace had been to The LIFT and knew it would be ideal for our culinary classes,” Mitchell said. “The AISD was so easy to work with, and we were thrilled to have our first class there and look forward to the next two classes this summer.”

Mitchell said The Grace will end up hosting three camps this summer with 20 children in each camp, and all three will be hosted by The LIFT. Terry O’Connor said the kitchen at The LIFT made for a great experience for each of the students in the first camp.

“Working in the kitchen at the LIFT was fantastic,” said O’Connor, who attended the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Austin and has combined with his wife for more than 40 years of restaurant operations experience. “The facilities are top-notch and make the execution of our plan with the students much easier. Having all the tools readily available is a huge help. The whole facility is such a thing to behold. Exposing young people to the different career paths available to them in the future is crucial.”

Students in the camps learn the basics of cooking, from food prep to measuring ingredients, and from meal planning to meal preparation. O’Connor believes all of those skills are important in learning a love for food.

“I believe it’s important to introduce young people to skilled trades,” O’Connor said. “We rely heavily on individuals with cooking skills to operate the restaurant (Cypress Street). One of these kids might just be the next Thomas Keller (world-renowned American chef, restaurateur, and cookbook writer). Shifting a bit of focus to learning a skilled trade is going to be wildly important, not only in the restaurant industry but in all industries requiring specific skills.”

The kitchen at The LIFT is a state-of-the-art area with all of the tools necessary for teaching both children and adults the finer points of cooking.

“Most of the students in our class already had a bit of experience working with their parents in their home kitchen,” O’Connor said. “But being able to use The LIFT facilities with a full complement of commercial appliances and all the various kitchen tools makes following the correct process and recipes that much easier. Much of the class is showing the students how to do a task or follow a process. The fun part for the students is when they can apply their knowledge using real commercial equipment in a real kitchen environment.

“On the first day of the camp, most of the students came in and said, ‘Wow! Look at all of this cool stuff,’ “ O’Connor said. “As the week progressed, they got more comfortable working with their surroundings and started to ask more questions about how the equipment works and what some of the tools are used for in food prep.”

Jay Ashby, Director of The LIFT and himself quite the culinary artist, said working with The Grace and Cypress Street personnel was a great experience for the newest facility in the AISD.

“The Grace has been offering excellent culinary camps for kids in Abilene for years, and we were very happy to host this summer,” he said. “Terry and everyone with Cypress Street provided a great experience and it’s always good for kids to see what The LIFT culinary space has to offer.”

Both Mitchell and O’Connor are hopeful this is more than a one-year arrangement between their two entities and The LIFT.

“All of the kids we’ve had so far have been excited about being able to use The LIFT,” Mitchell said. “They were blown away by the kitchen and loved working in there. The parents were excited to see The LIFT and know more about it. I heard several kids talking about going to ATEMS or taking classes at The LIFT after seeing the facility.

“We would love to continue working with The LIFT and hosting culinary camp there,” she said. “It’s a beautiful facility with a wonderful staff. Everyone has been kind and very eager to help. It’s a great way to show off The LIFT for future students and a wonderful facility for them to work in.”