Chef Craig Leeser has what many would call a dream job. As the head chef of Arizona Catering (owned by Jewish community member Mitch Katz), Leeser oversees day-to-day catering operations, which sometimes include cooking for a slew of famous people. During the Super Bowl, he whipped up food for Kevin Hart and Jimmy Fallon at Comerica Theatre, Pitbull and Enrique Iglesias at US Airways Center, as well as for Rihanna at a Direct TV party. He’s cooked for Eric Clapton, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Barbra Streisand, Harry Connick Jr., Justin Timberlake and Sir Paul McCartney, and the list goes on. But ask him where his heart is and he’ll tell you – cooking at Camp Swift, a camp for inner-city children ages 8-11 run by Jewish teens from across the Southwest. The campers are predominately Hispanic, Native American and African-American children from the Greater Phoenix area. (The camp takes place at Camp Daisy and Harry Stein in Prescott.)
Leeser will present a cooking demonstration at the Jewish Genetic Diseases Center of Greater Phoenix “What’s Cooking in Your Genes?” luncheon on Feb. 25. Rabbi Aaron Melman, a congregational rabbi and board member of the Chicago Center for Jewish Genetic Disorders, will also speak (see details box).
During high school, Leeser worked as a counselor at Camp Swift for four years as a member of his El Paso temple youth group. After moving to Scottsdale for culinary school, Leeser went back to camp in 2004 as Chef “Bubba,” a name he acquired while in youth group. He says sometimes people don’t understand his devotion to Camp Swift. “Unless you’re there and look into the eyes of these kids, hear their stories and see the transformation from the day they get there to four or five days later when they leave, it’s an experience that can’t translate into words. It’s beautiful.”
One of his most powerful memories of Camp Swift happened on arrival day. As the campers get off the bus, there’s always a lot of commotion and the children are often confused and out of their element, Leeser says. He saw a little girl who looked particularly lost and helped her find her cabin. He explained to her what the rest of the day would look like: She’d meet her cabin mates and “super cool” counselors, go swimming and eat dinner. “And she says to me, ‘We get to have dinner every night?’ That just brings it home,” Leeser says. “These kids don’t get to have dinner every night.” The food he makes isn’t fancy – grilled cheese sandwiches or baked ziti and the occasional brisket with mashed potatoes – but to the campers, every meal is a feast. “So many of them get sick the first night from eating so much because instinctively they don’t know when they’re going to eat again.”
Leeser wishes that more people could visit while Camp Swift is in session so they could see how wonderful it is for the campers, as well as how enriching it is for the Jewish teens. “To give a donation is one thing, but if people would just come up and see the kids. Spend a day. That’s it, you’re hooked,” he says.
Over the years, Leeser has held positions in several Valley kitchens – some more supportive than others when he requested time off to volunteer at Camp Swift. “I feel super-blessed that I work for Arizona Catering. Mitch not only allows me to go to Camp Swift, but he supports it by sending food along. He does a lot for the community.”
Leeser and his wife, Hannah, were recently chosen to participate in Honeymoon Israel, a 10-day trip to Israel in May for couples ages 20-45 who are committed to living a Jewish life. They’re looking forward to meeting the other couples at an upcoming orientation dinner.
After moving to Gilbert, the couple joined Temple Emanuel of Tempe and are active in the congregation. “It feels really warm and inviting and we know we’re in the right place.”
What: ‘What’s Cooking in Your Genes?’
When: 11 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 25
Where: Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus, 12701 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale