In the opening of his book “The Magic of Fire,” William Rubel writes that “firelight infuses everything cooked on the hearth with a touch of magic.” This may be doubly true for the campfire, the outdoor hearth that has been bringing people together at dinnertime since before the dawn of history.
It was a love of wood-fire cookery and wild places that led me and my partners to found Chef Camp, a gathering we hosted this past Labor Day weekend at YMCA Camp Miller halfway to Duluth from Minneapolis–St. Paul. The logistics were a bit nuts—camp consisted of 85 or so people (chefs, counselors, volunteers, photographers, and campers) who proceeded to cook, feast, and glory in the beauty that is outdoors Minnesota in perfect weather.
We learned some stuff at Chef Camp, too—lessons that we’re happy to share so that your next trip out into the wild might be a little more delicious.
Bring the spice: Pick a classic spice profile—ras el hanout, berbere, garam masala, herbes de Provence—and revolve one or more dishes around it. Spices travel easily, and bring complex, battle-tested flavor to anything they touch. At Chef Camp, Chef J.D. Fratzke reinvented walleye as a Keralan curried stew called meen molee, using coconut milk and spices to transform a mellow regional fish into a dish with serious depth of flavor.
Allow for the gift of nature’s bounty or the total lack thereof: The list of the world’s best edibles must surely include wild-caught fish, foraged mushrooms, and forest berries. If you head out at the right time of year (mid-summer through mid-autumn) and you know what you’re doing, some natural bounty is likely to come your way—particularly if you’re experienced and know how to find what you’re looking for.
Barring that, you can always come prepared and still kick up the experience of your camping or hiking trip. During our walk through the woods of Camp Miller, forager and hunter Jamie Carlson shared a mason jar of pickled chicken of the woods mushrooms—located and preserved weeks earlier. It was a wonderful way to experience foraged food in a wild setting without having to worry about it popping up spontaneously. He also shared jars of wild grape and cardamom jelly, foraged and canned long before camp.
Lug the cast iron: At his Chef Camp instruction site, Carlson introduced us to “Pain” and “Suffering,” the cast iron skillet and griddle he’s lugged into the wilderness on countless occasions. Heavy and unyielding, they make even a short hike into a trial. But once you’re set up and ready to cook, they transform some sticks and flames into a kitchen capable of putting out world-class food. Bearing the weight of at least one versatile piece of cast iron is worth some pain and suffering.
The fish spatula is a jack-of-all-trades: Fratzke’s fish spatula is more than a mere flipping instrument, although it does that just fine. He has the end sharpened like a knife, so it can cut (on the grill and, if necessary, off) and uses it as a whisk (its form factor and thin slats make it well-suited to pull triple duty in this regard.)
Knives don’t have to cost a fortune: From Spoon and Stable sous chef Ryan Stechschulte, we heard stories of apprentice cooks proud of their $500 knives but unable to turn out a decent mirepoix. Decent knives in the $50–150 range, when properly maintained, can be reliable tools for even the most skilled of chefs. And a magnificent, hand-forged $1,000 blade won’t save you from yourself if your skills aren’t developed.
Fire takes time: When you’re calculating dinner time, don’t forget to add some time not just to get a fire started, but to produce and bank your cooking coals. The challenge and the beauty of open fire cookery is the time it takes to build and manage the right fire—it helps to get your wood burning a good hour or two before you’re really ready to rock it out in terms of food production.
Small wood is like the knob on a gas grill: Once you’ve banked some coals for your cooking fire, all you need to do is keep some big sticks (or finely split logs) on hand for fine tuning the flames. The addition of small amounts of tinder can pump up your temperature on demand. Knowing the goal of your recipe (a long, low simmer, or a hard, fast sear, for example) can guide you in terms of the kind of wood you want to have on hand as you cook.
You’re cooking in three dimensions: One of the most interesting—and challenging—and downright awesome things about cooking with live coals is that they radiate heat. You can pile coals up around and even on top of a cast iron Dutch oven and more quickly (and more thoroughly) cook a meal. Different parts of the same fire can produce radically different thermal conditions, and the fire changes with time, so you need to stay in touch with its agenda.
Carry a torch for Sweden: The so-called Swedish Torch is one of the coolest things we deployed and enjoyed at Chef Camp. It requires a chain saw to execute, but it’s simple otherwise (see the below video for a demonstration): balance a big log vertically and cut down the center, stopping three or four inches from the ground. Make one or two identical cuts to create an X or an asterisk pattern and then use tinder and kindling to light up the top of the log, until it begins burns from the inside out. The flame it creates can power cast iron, light up your campsite, and—once it has died down to a ruby red glow—expertly roast marshmallows from all sides. Bonus trick: If you’re lighting up more than one Swedish Torch, light the second one on the first by stacking the logs vertically. Fire gloves recommended.
Go dry: Think risotto, think chili, think stew—dried ingredients like beans and rice can be greatly expanded with (purified) water, and serve as a blank canvas that you can illuminate with spices, sauces, and (if the wilderness gods cooperate) the likes of foraged mushrooms and wild-caught fish.
Go flavorful: Our camp cook, former Chino Latino Executive Chef Noah Barton, put a great deal of stock in wringing big flavors from small ingredients—think habanero peppers, bold spices, and deeply flavored sauces like a mustard-mango-hot pepper number called Inner Beauty. As with spice rubs and curries, ethnic cuisines from the world’s hot zones are a great place to look for inspiration—you can find punchy, distinct packages of flavor that are powerful but balanced.
Chef Camp will be taking place again at Camp Miller in September of 2017; go to chefcampmn.com for more details and to get on Chef Camp’s email newsletter.