Upta Chef Camp? The New Culinary Focus of Maine’s Summer Camps

At the end of their 2013 season, we were invited to tour a handful of Maine’s sleep-away summer camps to find out about their innovations in food: what and how campers are eating, and the increasingly important role food plays in their activities. It was a blast meeting with Camp Vega Co-Director Kyle Courtiss and Sarah Blair, lead instructors of “Chef Camp” at Camp Laurel.

Maine Summer Camps

Maine’s summer camps are iconic, set in the tall pine woods on placid lakes, a place where city kids and suburban kids can spend weeks untangled from technology and remember how to play and be free, immersed in nature. Violet and I set out early on a sunny Monday morning in early August toward the central lakes region. We drove through ugly Augusta and headed further inland, away from the seaside Maine we know, and into a different kind of Maine altogether. The air was sweet-scented with conifers and fresh water, and we rolled down the windows on the back country roads.

Maine Summer Camps

At Camp Laurel on Echo Lake, we were greeted by a father-sentry who minds the gate of the camp estate. He was Greg Kinnear-esque, handsome and tanned in khaki shorts. Laurel has a lovely, manicured campus. The buildings are uniformly deep brown with red trim and everything is pristine and pine-bright. We were dazzled by the shimmering lake, the tennis courts and rolling green lawns. By the lake there is a totem pole and a sunken seating circle, where every morning campers greet the day. The kids were entrenched in their traditional end-of-summer color war, so we saw relatively little of them as we hiked up and down the hills.

Maine Summer Camps

Maine Summer CampsOur guide at Laurel, Sarah Blair is a chef and food stylist in New York who spent the summer developing a cooking program for campers of all ages. Her log-kitchen is a shiny, open space filled with workbenches and top notch equipment. Sarah gave us the booklet of recipes she has written during the course of her career, traveling and instructing in culture and cuisine, and we were impressed by the depth and breadth of her culinary knowledge. After leading us hither and yon she left us in the capable hands of the food service director.

Camp Laurel is a big co-ed camp. Feeding all those active, growing, jet-skiing kids can’t be easy. Laurel emphasizes healthy options and individual needs. All dietary issues are accommodated. We talked a lot about being away from home for the first time, for the first days, when things might seem scary and lonesome. Food is an easy way to feel comforted and connected to the familiar. The day we visited, they were preparing for the “last day of camp feast,” that includes steak and lobster. They are making real whole food from scratch, not opening boxes and cans.

Maine Summer Camps

Maine Summer Camps

Soon, it was time to move on to Camp Vega (pronounced Vee-ga) the all-girls camp just a few miles around Echo Lake. We took an unpaved road through the woods, and I taught Violet the few camp songs I knew on the way. I was completely impressed with Laurel, but I sort of have a crush on Camp Vega. It’s a little smaller, a little easier to navigate, a bit homier, but just as amazing in its scope of activities and programs. The first person we met was the directors’ small blond son, who was waving to us from just outside the gates. We smelled the stables before we saw them and then finally found our way into Kyle’s office.

Kyle Courtiss’s parents owned and operated Vega for years; he attended a boys camp nearby, and now he and his wife run things there all summer long. We were immediately off to observe a cooking class, where the girls were working on red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese frosting. Next on the tour was the kitchen garden overlooking the lake, where they grow many herbs and vegetables including zucchini, tomatoes and broccoli. We were gifted a large, ripe yellow squash and, when Violet tried to take a bite, decided it was time for lunch.

Maine Summer Camps

Vega’s dining hall is rustic and knotty, with three salad bars and dozens of picnic tables. The head chef, while serving me amazing brisket tacos with meat they smoke on premises, told me about how they encourage campers to eat mindfully and include as many colors as they can on their plates. During the day, at mid-morning break, smoothies and fresh popped popcorn are available at the snack shack. In addition to the yummy tacos, I couldn’t stop eating the pickled beets. Kyle piled us into a golf cart for a full tour of the expansive in the woods camp.

Maine Summer Camps

I was charmed by the campers rushing up to tell Kyle about their morning activities, share elastic friendship bracelets made in arts and crafts, and chatter the way only 11-year-old girls can about a recent gaga game, which is some kind of new sport the kids are up to and not, as I thought, a self-consciously eccentric and friend to the outsider pop singer. He handed me off to a counselor and former camper who was delightful and could not be a better spokesperson for the values and benefits of Camp Vega. She showed me the archery field and the dance studio and zip lines. Violet and I couldn’t stop grinning as we sped around camp, eating plums we took from a fruit basket.

Maine Summer Camps

Both of us exhausted and in desperate need of a nap – though one of us had to drive home – I decided it was time to go. I was all jazzed up and really wishing they had summer camp for 30- somethings. What an adventure, what an experience, bonding and boating and sleeping in bunk beds. I went to Red Barn Day Camp and in sixth grade spent a week with classmates at Nature’s Classroom, singing folk songs and learning how to identify the various types of scat. But I would most closely equate camp to a theater production, where kids forge familial bonds doing weird stuff for hours and months when parents aren’t watching and you aren’t on stage.

Maine Summer Camps

I was very impressed with the food scene at the camps I was encountered. The emphasis is on fresh, whole foods, and children making good choices. It was interesting to see how into food kids are, which shouldn’t be surprising given the Food Network and celebrity chefs. What we eat and how we eat are important and tell us much about the current state of our culture.

We didn’t have a chance to visit camps Manitou and Hidden Valley, as their seasons were wrapping up and the kids heading for their respective homes all over the United States. I hope next year to get up there sooner, and see what new and neat things are going on in this wacky wonderful world of Maine summer camps. For more information on the dozens of camps in the network throughout the state, visit Maine Camp Experience.

Once again, after an amazing new experience and insight into an aspect of life here I knew nothing about, I feel excited and proud to call Maine home.

Other than dining hall lunch for Violet and I, and one yellow squash we took home from the garden, we were not compensated for the day or required to provide coverage on our website. All opinions expressed are my own.

Jillian Bedell

Jillian Bedell is a writer and mother living in a farmhouse in Cushing, Maine. She is very good at talking about herself in the third person. She is co-author of Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road. She creates content on the internet, on subjects ranging from summer camps to semi-precious stones to the folklore of food. With Malcolm, Jillian was one of the original “Insiders,” for the Visit Maine tourism campaign. She loves telling the stories of her adopted state, finding out-of-the-way places, and people making interesting things. Watching her daughters play in the wild woods and fields of Cushing makes her very happy.

5 Comments

  1. How incredible to be exposed to wonderful food at summer camp! I grew up in the 70s and early 80s, when processed was the word du jour – any crockpot recipe called for a packed of onion soup mix and a can of cream of whatever soup. I don’t even remember the food at summer camp but I doubt it was at all notable. I loved the Little house books – I still look at them from time to time. When Laura’s family had access to a garden they ate mostly vegetables cooked various ways or not at all. Even in winter, they ate storage veg like squash in addition to root veg. Most people I know don’t know what to do with winter squash. I hope that by exposing kids to good, healthy food at summer camp – a nonthreatening environment – we can recapture something of a good food culture.

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  2. Great post! I went to overnight camps in Maine for 7 years and those were the best summers of my life. Highly recommend the Maine summer camps (starting saving now!). My favorite food memory of camp is being served peppermint stick ice cream with hot fudge in a coffee mug as a special treat. I replicate this dessert at least once every summer. I wish there had been cooking classes back then!

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