How to Run a Camp Kitchen

(Originally posted Sep 15, 2015)

or…Keeping the Wolves at Bay

The final camping event of the season has come and gone (for me, anyway), and now am taking some time to reflect on some of the happenings and thinking about how to prepare better for next year.  I’ve been camping for 25+ years, usually just cooking for myself or sharing a kitchen with my small family or a couple friends.  However, my household and the group I usually camp with is growing with the addition of new friends (and a couple kids), so like many growing households, we need to take notes on how things should be done while cooking for larger groups…or not.

Earlier this tourney season, I had a *Very Bad Experience* with a shared kitchen.  I was very happy to receive an offer to buy into a kitchen, which would require my help with cooking and cleaning, but greatly reduce the amount of things I needed to pack and prepare.  This seemed like a great alternative to hours of set up and cooking all my own meals.  However, at this event there are many things that went wrong–so comically wrong–that has made me wary of buying into a camp kitchen ever again.  While I’d love to share the whole grizzly tale with you, I do not find that it would benefit anyone by naming names (or dates or locations).  However, it does lend to beginning a list of parameters and tips for running a successful kitchen so we can all avoid these problems in the future.  You can parse some of the errors of the *Very Bad Experience* from the points I make forthwith.

These methods and tips can be helpful for running any size kitchen, whether it’s two people sharing food, or a sizable household, or even a kitchen serving the Royals and all of their Retinue.  It’s all a matter of scale.

To begin, there are at least four different groups involved in any kitchen that we’re talking about here.  The manager of the kitchen for the duration of the event, I’ll call the Lead.  Under the Lead are Head Chefs (could be one, if it’s a small kitchen or if there is only one person who is an adequate cook, or perhaps a few of them taking charge of various meals, which can be especially helpful for large kitchens).  These people will be the ones in charge of preparing each meal.  Anyone actively working in the kitchen is the Crew.  And there are those who buy into the plan, who may or may not be working in the kitchen at all; I’ll call these people the Patrons.

  1. As the Lead, your duties include meal planning with the chefs, shopping (or delegating that assignment), creating the work schedule, and collecting payment.  The Lead should also choose who will be the Head Chefs of each meal, preferably people you know well enough to understand their abilities, personalities, and leadership qualities.   Once you get on site, your job is to make sure the teams report in, that they all get a tour of the kitchen so they know where everything is, go over the final menu, ensure that things start on time and run smoothly, and fix problems as they arise.

Meal Planning is a complex issue.

  1. Be sure that you have your portions correct.  One loaf of bread is not going to make enough French toast to feed 20 hungry people.
  2. Test all recipes to be sure that it will come out as you want and that you have all the ingredients on your shopping list.
  3. If you are cooking for people with allergies & intolerances, be sure to communicate with those people to be sure you don’t have an issue with cross-contamination.  Don’t cook or prep the allergens on the same surface as the food that they can eat.  Illness and anaphylaxis are not good ways to spend an event weekend.
  4. Besides allergies, some patrons may have other dietary needs, such as avoiding red meat or sugar.  Adjusting menus can make patrons happy, but that doesn’t mean that the one vegetarian will dictate the menu for everyone else–it means that while everyone else is having roast beef and turkey sandwiches at lunch, they will have egg salad or peanut butter.
    • TIP:  Just like the lone vegetarian, don’t let YOUR dietary quirks dictate what everyone else eats; ask your Patrons for feedback.  Not everyone will want to eat low-fat, gluten-free, sugar-free rice cakes with organic garlic goat cheese…especially if it dramatically increases the cost of the meal plan.
  5. Similarly, if you are cooking for children, be sure to have simple, familiar fare to keep the young ones comfortable and pleasant to be around.
  6. Publish the menu well in advance so any problems can be identified before the shopping trip.
    • TIP:  Set up a Facebook page for that kitchen and invite Patrons to join the discussion.
    • Keeping a simple menu will minimize prep and the risk of ruining the food, keeps the patrons happy (especially kids!) and keeps the costs lower.
  7. The Lead should NOT cook every meal all weekend (or two weeks…).  In fact, ideally, the Lead, especially in a large kitchen, should not cook at all.  DELEGATE RESPONSIBILITY!
  8. Head Chefs and Crew need to divide up the responsibilities for prep, cooking, and clean up.  Make sure that the work assignments are communicated ahead of time and posted somewhere in the kitchen.
  9. For a large kitchen, I recommend having at least three Head Chefs:
    • Breakfast Chef: that early-riser who is annoyingly chipper and organized in the wee hours of the morning, even before coffee is served.
    • The Lunch Head Chef…or perhaps would be more appropriately called a Lunch Captain.  This is something that a less experienced (or terrible) cook that wants to help out somehow and can be safely relied upon to lay out lunch meat, cheese, condiments, and bread. Perhaps also mix up lemonade and iced tea.  If this is a Royal kitchen, this may also include making up plates to be delivered to the Royals, wherever they might be (in a meeting, watching the tourney, etc.)
    • A Dinner Chef and Crew can take on the big evening meal.  This chef will have to be very flexible to accommodate the fluctuations of schedules that always occur at events.  If you’re cooking for sitting Royalty, this is doubly true!  Make sure that food is hot and ready when they are.  Check with their staff to get the timing right.
  10. The Head Chef will report on time for prep and round up their Crew to assist.  Assign tasks to your Crew based on their abilities (a 5 minute team meeting can accomplish this), and accept help when offered.
  11. Trust your Crew to know what they’re doing, and be mindful of tasks that can be done to keep the crew busy.
    • TIP:  DON’T BE THE EVERYMAN!  Trying to do it all will only leave you tired, grumpy, and could drive away your Patrons (especially if your attention is diverted from your job and you burn the meal).  Designate one person to help with all the odd requests–the lemonade needs mixing; someone wants to borrow the lighter; someone else needs paper towels.  This is not the job of the Lead or the Head Chef.  Your team knows where it is, let them find it.  Worst case:  TELL them where it is and they’ll get it.  Stay focused on your task.
  12. The Lead and set up crew should arrive early on site.  The kitchen and all its food products should be there well before the first meal is to be served.  If you plan on providing dinner on set up night (Friday), be there when site opens, set up the kitchen first, and make the food available for the Patrons as they arrive on site.  Bring a crew to set up your sleeping quarters, if necessary.
    • TIP:  Set up night should be kept simple; try having soup and bread or another heat-and-serve meal instead of something complex.  Either way, it requires minimal kitchen use, can be prepared in advance and just warmed up on site and can be left to simmer while you set up your own camp (supervised by a member of your crew, of course).  As Patrons roll in, they can pop in for a quick bite when they arrive or during a break in their own set up.
  13. Make sure that there is a backup plan.  If the Chuck Wagon blows a tire, who will feed your Patrons until you can get there?  If you are running late, be sure to communicate with others who are already on site so they can spread the word.
    • TIP:  Be sure someone else in the household has a stove and Emergency Rations to feed people should you not be there in time.  Alternatively, be ready to reimburse everyone for a missed meal.  Don’t forget to apologize for being absent.  There may well be several people who counted on that food to be there and now they will have to source a meal from somewhere else, either through begging or buying.  Since food merchants are becoming more scarce, begging from friends may be more likely, or even leaving site.
  14. Post serving times so your Patrons know when to stop by for meals, and your Crew will know when to report to work.  Be mindful of your Patrons’ needs!  Is one of your Patrons part of the morning herald team? Helping at gate late at night and in need of a midnight snack?  Or a member of Retinue or Royalty?  Having a schedule and sticking to it will avoid confusion and heartache.
    1. Breakfast should be *served* at least 30 minutes to an hour before the day’s first meeting, which is usually 8 a.m.  That means getting things ready at 6:30 or 7:00 a.m. and having food ready by 7:00-7:30.  At the very least, hot beverages (tea, hot chocolate, apple cider and coffee), fruit and some kind of bread product (muffins, bagels, etc.) should be available for those who have to grab-n-go before the normal breakfast hour.
    2. Lunch can be do-it-yourself sandwiches with all the condiments out for an hour or so midday, or make sure your Patrons know where to find all the meats, sides, and condiments for self-service.
    3. Dinner times may have to be flexible depending on court times or other activities.
      • TIP:  Posting mealtimes, again, is vitally important, especially if there’s a change in court schedules or other activities.  This posting board can include menus and ingredient lists, serving times, Crew assignments and schedules, as well as personal messages for each other. Communicate to your Chefs, Crew and Patrons so they know the plan!
  15. Cleanliness and Wash Stations
    1. All chefs should have food handler’s permits (if it were my kitchen, I would require it…but I’m a stickler for that sort of thing), and any crew handling food should get one or be familiar with the basics.
    2. NO smoking–not even those electronic smoking devices–in the kitchen.  Ever.  Seriously.  Ever.  While the e-smoking devices are not technically “smoke”, it’s one more thing to distract you from your duties and an unclean object that you handle in between food.  Take care of your nicotine habits before and after work, not during.
    3. Have a wash basin and hand soap (not just hand sanitizer goo) available for all Chefs, Crew and Patrons to use before touching any food.  We’re camping in a cow field, people.  Let’s keep things reasonably civilized.
    4. You must have a garbage can (or two) to scrape leftovers into and wash station available after meals.  Pots and pans (and anything SUPER dirty) washed last.  A rubber scraper can help get most of the chunks off before going into the wash basin.
    5. Cover the garbage and take bags to the dumpster as each bag fills to keep away flies, yellowjackets, and hungry carnivores.  Yes, we’re probably safe, but you know there are wild animals–notably bears, coyotes and cougars–not too far away, and they can easily smell those leftovers!
  16. Provide snacks, sides, and late-night nibbles for those who might need to fill in a little around the edges.
  17. Many hands make light work.  Everyone should work their shift and stay until it’s done and clean.