Raise your hand if you ever went to and/or worked at sleep away summer camp. A hundred million hands go up. Raise your hand if you ever worked in a summer camp kitchen. Ninety percent of hands go down.
Most people, myself included, do not really think about the people who exist behind the scene, working to enable the rest of our lives to function smoothly on a day to day basis. The roads are paved so I can literally drive anywhere in the country - incredible! There is green grass at the park so we can play ultimate - amazing! Summer camp is no different.
Hundreds of kids, counselors and staff stream into the dining hall three times a day for three meals a day for around eight to ten weeks. So let's say there are 500 people to feed three times a day for nine weeks. That comes out to 94,500 total plates needed for 189 total meals.
That's a lot of food. And working in a summer camp kitchen is the definition of a seasonal position and is therefore not easy to recruit good chefs who will be able to, or want to, take a post in a summer camp kitchen for a ten week gig. That is why camp food has traditionally been considered not fit for year round consumption. Sloppy sloppy joes, frozen broccoli, and mystery meat out of a can tends to trigger the gag reflex more than whet the appetite, and yet that is what camp food was, and in some cases still is.
The reason why this is acceptable cuisine is because the kitchen is feeding hundreds of ten year olds, who do not have much of a palate for an Italian tofu fritata or prime rib with horseradish crust. They WANT to eat pasta and cereal for three meals a day for ten weeks. Besides, who has time to really taste what they are eating when there are games to be played and girls to be kissed? Also the sheer volume of food needed for three meals a day is not conducive to fine dining and gourmet garnishing. When there are five hundred hungry mouths to feed at the same time, there needs to be food ready and plenty of it, and, now more than ever, there needs to be special diet (vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, dairy free, soy free, nut free, sugar free etc. and etc.) food ready as well.
So what to do? Are the staff and the health-conscious fourteen year old campers simply forgotten and abandoned, left to pick sadly at the soggy breaded broccoli bits on their cracked plastic plates? This summer I have discovered that there is in fact an alternative.
In October 2013, Michael Wolf, an accomplished chef and restaurant manager who had been working as the Chef de Cuisine at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, had an idea to change camp food into camp cuisine, and founded the company Wolfoods, Inc.
Now in its third year, Wolfoods, Inc. has brought camp food a long way from its traditional fare. By incorporating fresh, local and healthy ingredients into its kid-friendly menu, Wolf aims to take advantage of mealtimes in the dining hall to educate campers on "balanced diets and green initiatives." He has added a daily fruit and yogurt bar for breakfast and a salad bar for lunch and dinner, and maintains an on-site bakery at each camp for freshly baked bread and pastries. Though summer camp is generally not known for its fine dining, Wolf believes that "...at camp, everything should be memorable," and that goal is being realized. Thus far, Wolfoods has served poached eggs Florentine for breakfast, prime rib for dinner, and has already, within the first week, gained a new local produce vendor less than two minutes down the road. Farm to table indeed! Camp cuisine is a real deal.
The author is currently an employee of Wolfoods, Inc. working in a summer camp kitchen. His views do not necessarily represent those of the company.
Have you worked in a summer camp kitchen? Share your experience in a comment below. For further inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org.