Certified forager Kathy Yerich drops a knob of butter onto a griddle, then slides in a pile of chicken of the woods, a Cheetos-color mushroom that grows on trees in fat, stacked ruffles. She lets the chopped pieces sizzle and brown, then passes around samples. Firm and full-flavored, the sautéed mushroom is a textural dead ringer for chicken breast. Even fellow chef-instructor Janene Holig, who wandered over to this session on a break with her partner and dog, marvels.
This moment—the connection to nature, the casual mingling of experts with amateurs, the aha taste, even the ponchos required by a morning rain—is exactly what friends David Friedman and James Norton had in mind when they dreamed up Chef Camp. David is an attorney; James is an established Twin Cities author and magazine food editor. They dig lavish dinner parties and roughing it in the Boundary Waters, and they wanted to create a sort of fantasy camp mash-up of the two. In 2016, their concept found a home at Camp Miller, a 121-year-old YMCA camp between Minneapolis and Duluth; they’ve sold out each Labor Day weekend since.
Dinner is just like what you remember from the mess hall—except, OK, not at all.
The heart of Chef Camp is outdoor classes on topics like how to make sausage, toast spices, mix cocktails or sharpen knives. David says, “We want to make the lessons easy enough that anybody feels they can come into them, but inspiring enough that anyone feels they can get something out of them.” Instructors are big names from the Twin Cities food scene who stay all weekend and eat with campers.
And about those meals: Chef Nettie Colón helms the kitchen. Her cooking is hearty, generous and seasoned with adventure—summer cookout meets Parts Unknown. Big, unfussy hunks of pork shoulder, for example, are crusted in merkén, a smoky spice blend native to the Mapuche people of Chile. The hint of licorice in a peach cobbler comes from Xtabentún, an anise spirit made with fermented honey on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Nettie knows most people will swap easier-to-find ingredients when they make her recipes at home, but out here, it’s all about inspiration.
The yin to Chef Camp’s epicurean yang is its wholesome summer-camp spirit, complete with archery, color wars and late-night s’mores. Everyone sleeps in tents or bunks in cabins, and there’s a warm sense of community among strangers, which David credits to the setting: “Sitting around a campfire is an equalizer.”
Of course, good food and curiosity are equalizers, too. On Saturday afternoon, everyone gathers to watch Nettie unbury a pit-roasted Peruvian pachamanca feast. The aroma is intense: steamy banana leaves, smoke, chicken, lamb. Crouching in the hole, she plucks a charred sweet potato from the ashy coals and squashes it triumphantly in her hand. The soft orange flesh bursts from its blackened skin, and cheers erupt. Dinnertime.
This year’s camp is August 30–September 1. Fees run about $525 if you pitch a tent; a cabin spot costs a little more. chefcampmn.com
Sunshine slips through the Tall Pines classroom, where Jim Bovino of Minneapolis’ Topos Ferments leads a session on natural pickling.
Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style, but dinner is a sit-down affair.
On Saturday night, campers choose between paddling (to—shhh—a secret floating cocktail canoe) on Sturgeon Lake and a guided sensory hike through the dark woods, no flashlights allowed.
Campers take an afternoon beer break around a gold mine of chanterelles smoking over the embers.
A lesson in mushrooms
As a forager for Minneapolis chefs, Kathy Yerich knows her way around the forest floor. Watch for these edibles on your next wooded walk, or reach out to a local affiliated club of the North American Mycological Association to connect with a pro.
Hen of the woods (left) A fall mushroom that loves hardwoods, especially oak, and grows after cool nights. If you find one, go back next year—it often reblooms.
Chanterelles (center) Beautiful, delicate and delicious, but tougher to find. Look near oak trees in summer. Steer clear of toxic look-alikes, such as Jack O’Lanterns.
Giant puffballs (right) Unmistakeable! Like a large white soccer ball. Eat when still white inside, similar to a loaf of bread or marshmallow.
A field guide is critical to safe foraging. Co-authored with Teresa Marrone, Kathy's Mushrooms of the Upper Midwest (Adventure Publications, $15) is a great one.
A lesson in bar gear
Ever wonder how to make a trendy smoked cocktail at home? Chef Camp’s chief mixologist, Nick Kosevich of Milwaukee’s Bittercube, explains one easy way.
Cocktail cedars These chemical-free Spanish cedar sticks light quickly and produce a wisp of aromatic smoke that you can use to “season” the inside of a glass.
Smoked old-fashioned Light a cedar, let it extinguish in an upside-down rocks glass, then set the glass facedown to trap smoke. Mix your drink (you know the drill: simple syrup, bitters, bourbon, ice). Pour over ice in the smoked glass; garnish with orange peel.
Each cocktail cedar can be used to make several drinks. $18 for 25. bittercube.com
A lesson in cast iron
Chef Camp's skills man Nick Zdon teaches a fast, fuss-free method for keeping cast iron at its shiny, nonstick best.
Seasoning Seasoning is important for both new pans and those looking a little dull. Get a clean pan superhot on the stovetop. Use a rag or paper towel to rub a very thin layer of flaxseed oil all over pan. Return pan to heat and let it smoke off, about five minutes. Repeat three or four times.
Cleaning After cooking, deglaze the hot, dirty pan with water, then wipe under running water. If needed, use a little soap (really, it’s fine!) and a plastic scrubber. Dry over heat on the stove.
Maintenance The best way to keep a pan seasoned is to cook with it (especially fatty foods). Whenever it looks a little dull, do a quick booster coat of seasoning while you’re drying it on the stove after cooking.
Everyone knows Lodge Cast Iron, but it’s extremely heavy. Vintage pans are lighter and more nonstick. For premium new pans, Nick likes Field Company, whose skillets are made in the Midwest.
TOP Chef Sean Sherman, who will soon open The Sioux Chef restaurant in Minneapolis, gathers greens for wild rice paella as part of a lesson in indigenous cooking. The campfire burns all day next to Sturgeon Lake. CENTER Mornings start with optional yoga and dockside pour-over coffee and pastries—a mere appetizer before the full hot breakfast that will follow. BOTTOM Chef Nettie Colón is the official camp cook. At Friday’s opening dinner, a map illustrates the camp’s Minnesota-sourced ingredients.
Chef Camp recipes
Buttermilk Biscuits and Mushroom Gravy
Chilean Pork Roast
Grilled Peach Cobbler
Indian-Spiced Grilled Corn