Food Preparation

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 Grilled sandwiches and hot dogs have been replaced by grilled vegetables and quality meats served with fine sauces.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        

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