Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

Playing with Food

John Croke freely admitted that he is not a natural born cook.

Microwaving eggs, for example, was a technique to which Croke had grown accustomed during darker times in his culinary background.

“I thought I was a gourmet chef if I was making chili mac or anything out of the box,” Croke joked.

His philosophy on food has since changed dramatically. He is now a part of Columbus-based Cooking Caravan, a performance group that offers a variety of programs, from music workshops to cooking demonstrations, or a combination of both.

Whether hosting a food competition or an interactive story about healthy snacks, the themes are consistent: eating, educating, and entertaining.

“(For) the kids that spend 12 hours a day in childcare, you’re their parent,” Croke said. “They spend half of their day with you. Then mom swings through the drive-thru on the way home, and then they go to bed. And that’s their entire experience of eating.

The Cooking Caravan is the product of four men’s creative forces combined.
Croke, who has a background in acting, was drawn toward John Skaggs, a chef, and Mark Stursa, a freelance artist, while the three worked at the same restaurant.
The three met Chuck Johnson, a professional music teacher, through Skaggs.

The concept for the caravan was born while the actor, the chef, the artist, and the musician were hanging out together during a meal.

“We would open the fridge, see what’s in it and just start to make things. That’s how our motto – ‘What’s for dinner is what’s in the fridge’ – came about,” Croke said. “Then we thought, maybe we’re onto something here. Maybe we can incorporate education and art and music. Maybe we could kind of do it all.”

Croke is now the Caravan’s artistic director; Skaggs, the executive chef; Stursa, the graphic designer; and Johnson, the musical director.

The friends have stirred up ideas ranging from food plays to cooking literacy, and took their educational performances across Columbus.

One of last month’s performances – a Chef Battle held at the Hilliard library branch – ended with about 50 grade school students toppling over each other to eat not ice cream or pizza, but fresh fruit. Getting kids excited about non-processed foods is gratifying for the team – especially for Croke and Johnson, whose day jobs involve teaching Columbus’s youth.

“(For) the kids that spend 12 hours a day in childcare, you’re their parent,” Croke said. “They spend half of their day with you. Then mom swings through the drive-thru on the way home, and then they go to bed. And that’s their entire experience of eating.”

“That’s really hit home for us,” Johnson added. “To be able to monitor that and see what’s going on.”

The children literally gobbled up the lesson during the Chef Battle.
Croke and Johnson, both assisted by two young sous chefs from the audience, covertly chopped, mashed and mixed seasonal fruits and berries, while rocking out to family-friendly pump-up jams. The spectators were not told what the competing groups were creating until the dishes were complete, and samples were distributed to the room full of judges.

The audience vigorously applauded for Johnson’s team, “The Professionals,” who created a strawberry-based fruit salsa seasoned with cilantro, mint and salt, and accented with a tortilla chip.

Yet Croke’s “Strawberry Tots,” with their “fruity fun dip” – muddled raspberries, blackberries and strawberries, and topped with a green apple slice for scooping – were named the victor. The real sign of success, however, was seeing people apply the Cooking Caravan themes to their meals at home.

“It may be a concept that they’ve never heard before,” Croke said. “They may go home and eat McDonalds, but at least the conversation has started. And the next time, they’ll be a little more willing to hear it.”

The Caravan makes appearances at more places than libraries and malls, though. It has also teamed up with the Mid-Ohio Food Bank to develop simple recipes based on what was in stock.

Instead of people taking home a load of produce they did not know how to prepare, the Caravan would provide instruction.

“If we can change families just one meal at a time – it’s just such a great team building exercise,” Johnson said. “When you’re doing something together as a family unit, that drama, the stress of money, the stress of getting the food, your immediate surroundings fall to the wayside because you’re working toward a common goal.

“Even if it’s one night a week, we’ll consider that a success.” •

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