Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.
I really wanted to give this guy a chance. He said he could cook, and he expressed a strong desire to cook during one of my four-wheeling expeditions. Though he tried hard, he simply couldn’t handle the duties.
From buying food to preparing the meals, nothing went right. This individual meant well, no doubt about that. He just wasn’t qualified to be camp chef.
Basics of being a camp cook
Just because you’ve cooked at home or during a family camping trip doesn’t automatically mean you can handle a group event off-road.
Let’s cut right to the chase: Can you handle basic breakfast meals such as bacon and eggs? With toast and an endless supply of coffee?
Supper could be a three- or four-course affair. Imagine grilling steaks while heating potatoes and other vegetables. Maybe even baking a cake in the afternoon.
The various dishes must be presented on time and at the right temperature. Everyone must be fed in an orderly, clean and presentable manner. All that, despite the conditions at the campsite.
Many things can go badly on a trip. It can rain. Vehicles can get stuck or break down (messing up the daily schedule and setting nerves on edge). The campsite may be overcrowded and grungy. All that and more are possible.
As long as the four-wheelers have a good meal and they enjoy it, those issues are forgiven.
Any potential camp cook needs to understand the heavy responsibility they are undertaking. It takes exceptional planning and finesse.
But there’s a lot more to being a camp cook than just preparing the meals. The cook has to prepare to prepare all those meals. The process begins long before the vehicles hit the road.
Guidelines for the camp cook
Cooking outdoors for a group is an involved process. This list of guidelines will help you become a better camp cook.
- Pre-planning and lists are your friend. Go through the process of cooking each meal in your mind to help remember those small but critical ingredients and to make sure you have all of the cooking pots, cooking utensils, knives, cutting boards, etc.
- Determine the proper quantities of food to purchase. Err on the generous side because you don’t want to run out, including cooking fuels. Buy smaller containers to reduce waste. For example, individual cereal boxes instead of one large box. And smaller containers of food that do not need refrigeration until opened (salad dressing, salsa, mayonnaise, etc.). Refrigeration is at a premium off-road.
- Know whether a fire restriction is in place. That will dictate whether you can cook with wood or charcoal. Check with the Trail Guide if you don’t know.
- Avoid buying anything in glass containers. Glass is not permitted in some areas. Plus, there’s the danger of breakage. We don’t want glass shards all over a campsite.
- Ask the Trail Guide about special dietary needs including any need for decaf coffee. Buy accordingly.
- Prep as much food as possible before the trip within the limits of your refrigeration capability.
- Familiarize yourself with the trail beforehand if possible. Ideally, arrive at the next campsite before the group. Discuss this with the Trail Guide, as that person may have some additional insight into the trail, including a possible shortcut.
- Be clean and presentable. Wear clean clothes, and a hat and apron every day. Tie hair back to keep it out of the food. No smoking while preparing or cooking. We don’t want ashes in our food.
- Use clean towels and dish cloths.
- Separate the kitchen from the serving area and other functions. Guests should be discouraged from the kitchen area.
- Set up an area for everyone to wash hands.
- Wipe down all tables and prep areas to eliminate dust and dirt from the trail.
- No double-dipping to taste test food. Food that falls on the ground or into the fire does not get served.
- All food is refrigerated after it is opened or otherwise prepared.
- Organize food in coolers and storage boxes by meals or meal categories (breakfast, lunch, dinner). If you just throw everything in boxes, it’ll be difficult to find the ingredients. Understand that they will be some overlap or duplication of ingredients.
- Keep the kitchen neat and organized. Serve all food in one spot at the camp site.
- Work with the Trail Guide regarding lunches. One option is to have the guests prepare sandwiches right after breakfast. To do that, you’ll need to set up a serving table with all the ingredients laid out logically.
- Unload only the firewood to be used for the day; otherwise, guests will figure they can burn it all, and they will.
- Sequence food in the service line in logical order. For example, put plates at the start, place salad dressing after the salad, etc. Arrange for a line on both sides of the table to speed up service.
- Have a large dishpan of hot soapy water to wash dishes and a second dishpan to rinse the dishes. Plan for lots of water for cooking, coffee, and clean up.
- Clean up the work area after every meal. Expect to deal with a lot of trash and its transportation and disposal.
- Have appetizers / happy hour ready to go before supper.
- Put out the designated food so that guests can help themselves at any time. Food for future meals should be stowed and out of sight.
- Ice down one- or two-days’ worth of drinks. [Tom: I thought your email said you were going to delete this.]
- If visiting a high-altitude location, understand how that will affect cooking times.
- Put the coffee on early. And keep it coming. It is a sin to run out of coffee. Keep an extra pot of hot water for tea or hot chocolate. Since you are likely using larger coffee pots, do a test brew at home to get the right combo of grounds to water. Time how long it takes to brew it, too.
- Be sure you have creamer, sugar, stir stick, and that fufu stuff people like to add.
- Put out appetizers while guests are setting up camp. Let them know when they can expect the main course to be served.
Cook for friends to build skills
Camp cooking can be very rewarding. It allows a person to enhance his culinary skills and spread his wings a bit, too. Accolades tend to flow after a tasty and satisfying meal. But being camp cook carries a tremendous amount of responsibility.
It starts before the trip has begun and doesn’t end until after the final meal. The camp cook handles every facet of the meals – all in an outdoors environment. Details are important and going over them several times is essential – you won’t be able to pop over to Safeway.
If camp cooking sounds appealing, start by cooking for a small group of friends. Build on what you learn from that experience. Over time you will develop the skills and confidence to treat others while on the trails.
Are you a Trail Guide and in need of a cook? Use these guidelines to qualify your candidates.
I hope to see you on the trails!
Tom Severin, President Badlands Off Road Adventures, Inc.
4-Wheel Drive School
Make it Fun. Keep it Safe.