Anyone can cook. After all, even Neanderthal man put fire to meat and called it cooking. But the key today is in the preparation. Food preparation in camps, as well as at other venues, requires a variety of knowledge, yet there are some specialties unique to camp food service. A few helpful hints can greatly improve the focus of every camp–the dining hall. Often, there is only one entrée offered at each meal, whereas restaurants and even school cafeterias offer choices. This makes it difficult to please all of the people all of the time, but the more a camp director can satisfy the five physical senses of campers and counselors, the more likely he or she is to have returning staff members and full beds of campers.
A food director should plan a menu according to a given period of time–such as a one- or two-week session–and be careful to avoid the “menu monotony” that so many camps become afflicted with. Although counselors and staff members poke innocent fun by calling the menu a “boring rut,” this attitude is then perceived by the cash-paying camper, who reports home that the food is terrible. The subject of camp food then becomes a mind game. The best practice for all is to remain positive and supportive of the camp’s food-service operations.
Cuts of beef should speak to the menu, and the menu should speak to the guest; in all circumstances, quality is paramount. For example, ground beef is a favorite menu item, and although there are many grades available, a blend of 90-percent lean beef consisting of no more than 10-percent fat is recommended.
With roast beef, one learns that the more tender the cut of beef, the more expensive the serving; however, this cut produces a higher yield with less shrinkage overall. This is another factor in selecting one type of beef over another at camp. Keep in mind that shrinkage is also a function of the length of cooking time and temperature. Additionally, lesser cuts of beef may require tenderizing by the use of marinades or moist cooking methods. When using lesser cuts of beef, experience suggests calculating the shrinkage due to the amount of fat content. For instance, a brisket may only yield 60 percent of its raw weight, so a 20-pound brisket may only yield 48, 4-ounce portions for a meal, depending on its quality.
The generic term “steak” is used for many levels of quality for individual portions of meat. It takes on names such as chicken-fried steak, Swiss steak, flank steak, London broil, and tip steak. Many of these are of the sirloin top and bottom round variety that requires a tenderizing method. At camp, these items are favorites among the counselors and staff members, but less popular with younger campers. Some of these items are called “mystery meat” by the less-informed. This is where good training by well-instructed camp counselors can be of immense benefit to the senses and sensitivities of the campers by helping them discern the taste of good food.
Finger-Lickin’ Chicken (And Turkey)
Chicken (and turkey to a lesser degree) is a favorite for all ages of campers, counselors, and staff. But this item can become boring and even tasteless if it is not creatively and properly prepared. The best advice is to practice by following recipes known to be popular in your geographical area. Chicken fingers (strips) are always a popular item, but most camps are doing away with fried foods. Meanwhile, the popular fast-food restaurants that campers are accustomed to are still deep-fat frying their golden-brown chicken nuggets and fingers. So the camp kitchen staff, and indeed the entire camp staff, must support alternative methods of preparing these ever-popular breaded menu items. Pre-breaded, par-baked, oven-ready chicken fingers are available from most distributors, and with proper seasoning, this chicken item offers an attractive alternative to the fried items, particularly when served with dipping sauces. (Try ordinary ranch salad-dressing mixed with Chipotle paste.)
Baked chicken, roasted chicken, and BBQ chicken are always a hit at camp so long as they are carefully seasoned and properly prepared. A variety of poultry seasonings are available; fresh herbs and spices also can add to the taste. To ward off the grimacing faces of campers who generally decline eating any “mystery meats,” add paprika or a seasoning salt to enhance the color of any white meat. One word of caution: Over-seasoning is just as detrimental as under-seasoning any food–be careful of the salt content.
Sauces And Soups
“Everything tastes better with a fine sauce,” some people say, but will that play well at camp? Yes, but not for every camper. When meats are prepared in sauces, they act as tenderizers and result in moist cooking. Without a doubt, campers today have experienced and developed more sophisticated eating habits. Grilled sandwiches and hot dogs have been replaced by grilled vegetables and quality meats served with fine sauces. To mix the menu up, a bit, consider the derivative form of a sauce as the comfort food of a nice homemade soup. If the kitchen staff can learn to make a few simple sauces, it can master delicious soups, like cream of chicken, vegetable beef, black bean soup, or even New England clam chowder, just to mention a few. Here are some hints for taking a menu up a notch or two: Learn to make a few of “the mother sauces,” from which all sauces are derived, such as the basic béchamel sauce made with milk and an equal portion of flour and butter (called a roux). The derivatives of this sauce are almost endless. By adding a full-flavored, well-aged grated cheese, the camp chef can create a Mornay sauce, and sometimes this is used with breadcrumbs and butter to form a crust or topping. Almost all young campers love cheese. Consider Alfredo sauce made with heavy cream, grated parmesan cheese, and garlic to serve over chicken and/or pasta.
Staff members should then experiment with the various soup, sauce, and gravy bases available. But they should stay with the quality bases, where the first labeled ingredient on the package is the lead item in the menu, like beef or chicken. These fortified bases are made from meats, seafood, and vegetable stocks. While sometimes expensive, they relieve the cooks of the laborious task of extracting and preparing the ingredient stocks from meats, seafood, and vegetables. Veloute sauce is made from white stock (chicken base) and thickened with a white roux; the flavor can be enhanced by adding fresh herbs. A beurre blanc sauce is a butter sauce made with whole butter and lemon juice or wine vinegar; sometimes shallots and heavy cream are added for additional flavor and thickening.
Eggs Benedict, anyone? Hollandaise sauce and its chief derivative, Béarnaise sauce, are very simple to make. The ingredients are hot emulsified egg yolks and water whisked with clarified whole butter and lemon juice. Béarnaise sauce is created when fresh tarragon is added. While not routinely served at camp, this mother sauce can certainly have a “wow” factor at the dining table when served to adult groups and board meetings, or for special events like fundraisers. The successful camp director has learned to please adults–from where the money flows–by the use of his or her food service. After all, “food doesn’t have to be expensive to look and taste expensive.”
Food service is all about pleasing the customers, and this is accomplished by perceiving their needs, wishes, and desires. Try the suggestions above, and you will reap the benefits. Remember, good food makes a happy camper. Bon appétit!
George Hughes, MBA, is an Independent Management Consultant for the food-service industry. He can be reached via email at GeorgeHughes50@gmail.com.