My Summer Job As A Camp Chef
As with most professional chefs, I could fill a room with pages full of wonderful stories. From washing dishes at a local diner to managing multi-million-dollar kitchens to cooking for 500 people on a giant charcoal grill on an airport runway, this career has fulfilled every culinary curiosity one could imagine.
This summer will be my second summer working as the lead cook for a wonderful overnight camp deep in the woods of the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Since my full-time position affords me summers off, I am blessed to be able to work somewhere else for a few weeks. Nothing says, “change of pace” better than a summer camp. To say that this new experience is polar opposite of many of the things I have accomplished would be very much an understatement. The mosquitoes and poison ivy are lovingly offset by sounds of joy and vulnerable anticipation of new and exciting things. We staff members and I get to live on-site for the summer in private cabins and old-fashioned bunk-houses reminiscent of those summer camp movies we watched fondly as children and young adults.
From scratch-made lasagna to macaroni and cheese to hot dogs, we get to play around a little with meals that are the envy of most area restaurants. My goal is not only to pull off the seemingly impossible feat of trying to please everyone but also set myself up for a simple cross-utilization of leftovers. A tight budget and my disdain for food waste are great fodder for running a tight ship. Some of the uses for said remnants can be pretty comical. Yes, there are the obvious meals; leftover roasted chicken turned into enchiladas or tacos. But bragging is in order when we are making bread pudding out of French toast, bagels, and iced sheet cake, topping it with berry sauce culled and cooked down from yesterday’s fruit cups. Cheesecake in which the crust is made with some brownie and/or cake scraps. Or, pizzas topped with hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, or tater tots with bacon, among other crazy pizza concoctions every Friday night for dinner. Ever had a corned beef hash and scrambled egg pizza?! It’s camp, why not!?
As a professional chef with years of training, it’s the best job for me to let loose. The pressure of staying within that tight budget offers great opportunities to stretch a dollar, which is probably one of my favorite challenges of cooking for people. Offering delicious sustenance on the cheap to a bunch of young, sometimes picky, people can seem impossible. With the right touch and a little trial and error, it can be the perfect symphony.
My day progresses into answering a litany of questions, usually followed by a lengthy and overly detailed explanation to the wide-eyed volunteers and staff. As I sense my explanations becoming somewhat incomprehensible chef-speak, coming up with smaller, less-syllabic phrases that explain culinary terms has become a bit of a newfound skill. One must learn to turn statements from, “Please cut this fruit for the fruit salad,” into, “Please wash this melon with cold, NOT hot water and do NOT use soap, get a clean green cutting board and make sure to put a clean wet towel under the cutting board so it won’t move when you cut on it, then take that big knife over there and carefully peel this cantaloupe by cutting off each end and, so on and so on…” you get the picture. Funny how one who has spent his life in kitchens takes kitchen jargon and general food knowledge for granted over the years.
With three meals a day to prepare, staying a day ahead is very important. Getting breakfast prep done the night before sets us up for success. Time management, patience, and a cool head prevail. It is always a good idea to keep the freezer full of kid-friendly desserts as well. I refuse to buy store-bought cookies when scratch-made is always the best! Sheet pans full of loaded brownies, cheesecakes, and sheet-cakes make dessert time a cinch.
Let us not forget the food ordering and gathering that has become the juggernaut that I lovingly call “The Order.” I call it that because, well, if “The Order” is not “In Order,” I cannot have “Any Order” in the kitchen. Relationships with local farmers have always been a really important necessity throughout my career. Having fresh-picked produce and shaking the hands that grew it is an honor and a privilege. The summers here are fraught with loads of zucchini, yellow squash, tomatoes, and melons. Most kids flip over fresh fruit, which is served every morning with breakfast. I came up with a system where the staff helps out with my food order. This simple yet effective dry erase board makes my life so much easier.
Interestingly, the ‘Summer Camp‘ concept began here in New Hampshire in 1881 at Squam Lake as Camp Chocorua by a man named Ernest Balch. His vision was that, while wealthy adults were out enjoying their posh vacations at the mountain resorts, kids needed something a little more fun, wholesome, and closer to reality. While the parents stayed at the resorts, the kids would go off to camp and learn many life skills in a group environment. This original model spread pretty quickly and became popular all over New England. To this day, summer camps bring in hundreds of thousands of children of all ages outdoors and into nature during their school summer breaks. It’s here they meet new people, learn new skills, and eat great food most of the time. If they are lucky, they will have a professional chef, with his or her summers off, cook hand-formed hamburgers or unctuous mac and cheese like their grandmothers used to make…only better.
As the spring comes to an end and the early days of June creep up on me, I always get a little giddy knowing that, in just a few short days, I will be up on the lake with a car full of my belongings ready to load up the rustic cabin in the woods, to begin my soul-searching time in this bug-infested, squirrel-laden hermitage. Ready to bust it out for 12 hours and enjoy the kayaks and the sunsets while eating s’mores by the campfire. Loving life while my 8-week contract flies by. It’s like going on a two-month vacation, making memories, and a paycheck at the same time. I am looking forward to watching big, wide-opened eyes stare at stacks of quesadillas and bowls full of baked french fries. It’s a gift I hope never to take for granted.