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Cooking up a storm

Camp cooks keep hungry kids fed all summer long

WILL HOSKEN and Kezia McShane do the cooking at Camp Birch Hill. Courtesy Photo. (click for larger version)
August 27, 2014
NEW DURHAM — Years ago, when Patrice Mitchell was looking for a summer job, a friend asked if she'd be interested in cooking for a summer camp. "I thought, how hard could it be?" Mitchell said. "If you could cook hamburgers for a family of four, you'd just multiply that for what you needed. Well, then I found out how hard it can be."

She stuck with that job at a camp in Gorham for 12 years. Two years ago, she pulled out her chef's hat again to spend 12 hours a day, seven days a week, three meals a day in the kitchen at Lions' Camp Pride on Merrymeeting Lake. The camp has a 10-week season that includes a two-week session for children with diabetes.

"Sometimes all I can smell when I go home is chop suey, because I've just cooked enough of it to feed 200 people," she said. Miller does all the meal planning and ordering, and adds that she also receives deliveries, although she "has help" with that. The smallest group she cooks for is about 40 and the largest, 200.

"We have a lot of specialized diets, such as dairy or gluten free foods," she said, which keeps her on her toes.

Scale figures into camp cooking. The first order of the summer includes 40 pounds each of turkey and ham for sandwiches and 30 dozen eggs. Baby carrots come in 25-pound bags. The scope is beyond those of us who throw the occasional dinner party.

Chrissy Morell, operations manager of Camp Birch Hill in New Durham, explained, "People buy apples by the pound, camps order them by the crate." She also cited 40 "of the big boxes" of pancake mix arriving at the beginning of the season.

Not only amounts, but time also expands for a camp cook. "It was a big revelation just how much time it takes to move food around," Mitchell said. Items for 200 people come in huge boxes and it takes longer than you might think to get the food oven ready before even starting to figure the cook time. "You have to consider how long it takes to get those boxes to the counter, open them, then open the bags, and get all of the items onto trays and into the oven," she said. Meanwhile, there are 200 hungry kids lining up at the door.

Math figures into all of this, too. Morell said that guidelines on food packaging indicate adult servings, but the campers are smaller. "It says 60 servings on the chicken bag, but that equation wouldn't work for us, as a small child eats less. That's why it's important for our cooks to have a good feel for the ordering process."

Planning, ordering, and cooking duties for the 175 campers and staff at Camp Birch Hill are shared by Will Hosken and Kezia McShane, who weren't thrown into the frying pan quite as quickly as Mitchell. They began as counselors, and once they made their interest known about cooking, they bused tables and washed dishes. Parents with backgrounds in the food industry who cooked at the camp, and guest chefs mentored Hosken and McShane for two years, allowing greater and greater responsibility until this year when they became the head chefs.

All cooks have helpers, of course, and they couldn't do what they do without them. "I have a wonderful crew," Mitchell said. And it does get hot with ovens baking away. "Industrial fans help," Morell said. "Plus they're in and out of the walk-in refrigerator which cools them down."

As one would expect, the atmosphere when cooking vacillates between moderate frenzy and calm. Mitchell reports that food preparation time is unruffled, but as the hour to serve approaches, "it gets a little stressful."

In a pinch, family members can step in to help. Morell, who has filled in, reported cooking for that many people is "extremely difficult to do." She called it a labor of love. "If someone is choosing to go down this path, they have to love the camp they're working for, because it's a lot of work."

Since it is such a demanding job, cooks are well taken care of. In terms of staff, Morell ranks those in the kitchen right at the top, on the same level as nurse and camp director.

It's summer camp, after all, so there are hot dogs and hamburgers, tacos, fajitas, Chinese food. And cooks mix it all up, to keep things fun, but there's still a lot of traditional fare. Morell noted some interesting changes, though.

"When I was a kid, the pasta bar was the most popular, along with peanut butter and jelly. But now we often hear, 'Oh, green beans'" As nutrition movements creep into the culture, young people's tastes keep pace. "Campers have come around to vegetables and salads," Morell said. "We replenish fresh fruit continually; it's huge."

And after a full day of cooking for others? "Oh, I don't cook when I go home," Mitchell is quick to point out. "I bring back a plate of food." And once the summer ends and it's time to start cooking for herself, she finds it easy to downscale. Smaller pots and what must seem like tiny quantities of food don't throw her a bit.

As the massive pans are scrubbed for the last time and the shelves are emptied until next summer, the cooks often go on to other food industry jobs that are, no doubt, far less challenging. But as the next camp season rolls around, they'll be back.

"Will and Kezia love interacting with the campers," Morell said.

"For me personally it comes down to the people I work with," Mitchell said, citing a fun, music-filled environment within the kitchen. "I love working with younger folks, and it's satisfying to know the campers are getting the right amount of food and the right food. This is not culinary arts," she added. "Rather, it's a people business."

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