In the spring of 2010, I wrote a blog post about the food at Ramah Outdoor Adventure.  In that post I laid out our goals for the summer as it related to the food we would be eating at Ramah Outdoor Adventure and the programs we hoped to run that related to food at camp.  When writing that post, our culinary program was but a dream, having not yet welcomed our first campers to our rustic base camp.

Over the past few weeks we had a chance to take a step back and evaluate the food program in the broader context of the mission of our camp.

Here are some of the important lessons that we have learned:

#1 Campers appreciated healthy food.

One of our biggest concerns about our menu, which featured fresh, unprocessed, whole grain and organic food, was that many of the campers might not be willing to eat the meals provided.  We were warned that campers would only want to eat “kid food” and that despite our best efforts, campers would not eat kale, brown rice or tofu.

As it turned out, this warning was incorrect.

Our kitchen staff did a wonderful job  creating meals that were diverse, nutritious and delicious.   The emphasis here is on the word delicious.  It is true that had we simply placed some bland kale on brown rice, few people would have been satisfied.  But instead, our kitchen staff worked to create meals that one might eat in a high end vegetarian restaurant.  For example, they made: kale, pasta vegetable salad; salmon vegetable burgers; lentil stew with tofu and sautéed vegetables; carrot pancakes with fruit toppings; and vegetarian Mexican wraps.    Our head chef is an expert with spices, and knew exactly the correct seasoning to put on each dish.  I barely ever remember needing to use salt or pepper on our food, because it was so tasty to begin with.

While the menus were diverse, a key to our success this summer was the salad bar.  We found our campers constantly going back up to the salad bar to refill their plates.  Even many of our youngest male campers (a group not usually known for eating their greens) would go to the salad bar at each meal and leave with a plate filled with green vegetables.  Even when campers chose not to eat the main course, they were able to find vegetables, protein and carbohydrates at the salad bar.

#2 Aesthetics are important:

Providing excellent food in a dining hall is only a beginning.  At Ramah Outdoor Adventure, we believe that meals are really about community building.  They should be a time where people can unwind, turn to their neighbor and engage in real conversation, and leave feeling relaxed.  This was one of our main goals this summer, which I am pleased to say we accomplished.

To achieve this atmosphere we implemented a few key rules:

  1. Each day two campers from each tent were assigned to be Meltzarim (waiters).  These Meltzarim would arrive 5-10 minutes before each meal to set the table.  Setting the table did not just mean stacking plates and cups on the table.  It meant setting the table just like one would do at a restaurant: fork on the left, knife on the right a full glass of water by each plate.  When the doors opened for the rest of the campers to enter, they came to their seat, waited until the bracha was said and only then began eating as a group.
  2. When outfitting the kitchen we bought restaurant grade China dishes rather than the typical camp plastic.  These dishes helped to create an even nicer atmosphere than one usually would find at a camp.  While we budgeted to break 20% of our plates, our campers treated them with such respect that we only broke four dishes the whole summer – and three of those were dropped by our dishwashing staff.
  3. The only campers who could stand up during a meal were those people going to the salad bar and the meltzarim who were heading to the kitchen for more food.  By encouraging campers to remain seated throughout the meal, we were able to create a more relaxed atmosphere —  one conducive to the community building and mealtime conversation we were seeking to foster.

#3 Organization is key:

One of our biggest challenges this summer happened behind the scenes in the kitchen.  Despite an extraordinarily talented and hard working culinary staff, the first few weeks were a challenge because of the logistics involved in obtaining fresh food at our ranch.  Early on in the summer we were sending our driver to the grocery store multiple times each week.  While this ensured that there was a constant supply of fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy products, it placed a huge toll on our kitchen staff to scramble to make last minute menu changes when the food was not back in time.  Perhaps even more troubling, because our camp is so remote–a round trip drive to the grocery store is between 3-4 hours—we were driving 100s of miles a week to obtain fresh food.  As a camp who is committed to being sustainable and green from the ground up we were leaving a larger than necessary carbon footprint.  Towards the middle of the summer, we managed to hire a new food delivery service, adjusted our menus and brought in an extra kitchen staff member to assist with logistics.  These changes enabled us to improve the quality of our food while also reducing the number of trips we would have to make to the market.  By the last two weeks of the summer, we needed only one food trip each week .

Despite our first year success, we are committed to furthering our culinary operation so that it fits squarely with our mission.  In the coming season we are going to make a few additional changes to our operation.  These include:

–          Offering more menu options for campers.

–          Lengthening the amount of time allotted to each meal to allow campers to have 5-10 extra minutes of eating and relaxing at each meal.

–          Implementing additional programming at meal time that enables the campers to take a greater role in understanding the food we eat at camp and assisting in making some of the decisions about what food we should be eating and from where we should be sourcing the ingredients.

We look forward to sharing our continued experiences with you over the off‑season and throughout the summer.  Please call or email me with your input about our food service.

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