Editor’s note: This story from the quarterly Star Tribune Magazine was printed before the coronavirus pandemic reached Minnesota. Before visiting places mentioned, please check to make sure they are open, and be aware that other details may have changed.
The moment the Popsicle hits her tongue, Laurie Wulff grins and giggles. “Oh, my gosh! This is …” she says, laughing some more, “amazing.”
Wulff is at summer camp, specifically Chef Camp, so it’s no ordinary Popsicle but a salty-sweet watermelon paleta. Unlike those she had as a child, it’s also boozy, soaked in hard seltzer. Wulff is no kid. But for a moment, her delight at an ice pop melts decades off her 57 years.
That’s the magic of summer camp, a woodsy adventure no longer relegated to sweaty kids. Nostalgia-soaked adults-only weekends are filling bunk beds across the Midwest and the country. They feature all the sleepaway classics: campfire singalongs and archery, crafting and canoeing. Some camps, such as Camp Halcyon in Wautoma, Wis., revive those classics, but fancier. Think a nightly s’mores bar featuring cinnamon and coconut mallows.
Then there are camps with more specific aims. Unglued Summer Camp in northwestern Minnesota gathers crafters. Band Camp targets musicians. Space Camp attracts astronomy enthusiasts. And so on.
Chef Camp brings together foodies. Dozens of them pay $600 each for a Labor Day weekend at the wooded YMCA Camp Miller on Sturgeon Lake to cook, eat and do cannonballs alongside some of the Twin Cities’ buzziest chefs. A dockside breakfast: pourover light roast and freshly baked chocolate croissants. A campfire cocktail: a Bombay Sapphire Collins with cherry bark vanilla bitters. “It’s the most good, wholesome fun you can have all year,” as volunteer Rebecca Peichel puts it, “plus some booze.”
Nicknames and other silliness
We arrive Friday evening, ditching our sleeping bags in cabins and tents and jogging to the camp’s center. There, at a small table, Claudia Holt oversees name tags and markers.
“Y’all need camp nicknames,” she says. “If you have something in your heart that wants to come out as a nickname, you can go with that. If not, we can workshop it.”
“Well, I mean, I’ve got T-Rex Disco,” says Linz Kieffer, who trekked here from West Hartford, Conn.
“T-Rex Disco is a really good camp name.” Holt, nodding, hands over the marker.
Jack Daniels is next. (“I’ve been in AA for 35 years,” he says. Holt approves: “There’s some irony there. It’s perfect.”)
Campers grab cocktails, toss beanbags, ease giant Jenga pieces out of an ever-more-wobbly tower. They learn stuff, too. Nick Zdon, aka Goat, teaches a group how to form tiny teepees out of newspaper and thin strips of wood, throwing sparks onto petroleum-soaked cotton balls tucked inside. As the paper catches fire, they cheer.
Fires burn all weekend long, soaking flannel shirts with their smoke. Baby fires and stacked campfires. A smoker, a pizza oven. A pit lined with hot stones, stuffed with squash and chuck roast, then covered with banana leaves, cloth and giant metal sheets.
Before that pit is uncovered, before the snapper is grilled, before a single marshmallow is melted, campers gather around the fire for the “opening ceremonies.” Chefs are touted, color wars explained. The four campers who have shown up for all four years of Chef Camp are honored. Dave Friedman, one of the camp’s co-founders, is introduced.
In real life, he’s a bankruptcy attorney. Here, he’s Upstate — or “king of the jorts.” His jean shorts hike up as he bikes between sessions, checking on chefs and campers, challenging a counselor to a La Croix-chugging contest. Those counselors include a law school student and financial manager, Friedman points out. “None of these people are anything close to camp counselors in their real life.” But get them around a campfire, and they’re leading chants, lighting torches and stoking petty competitions.
Chef Camp is structured around cooking classes; campers chop herbs and shuck oysters.
So it’s serious about food. But otherwise? Not so serious.
“It’s all about being relaxed,” Friedman says, “helping people to have fun, giving people permission to act silly.”
‘Like in the movies’
Before breakfast comes pre-breakfast.
On my way to 7 a.m. yoga, I grab a coffee and a poptart, baked that morning by the brothers behind Duluth’s Best Bread.
Michael and Robert Lillegard first came to camp in 2017, earning color wars points — and slick temporary tattoos — for jumping in the lake at 5 a.m. “Because we’re bakers,” Michael explains, “we’re already up.”
Early morning, alone in the kitchen, the brothers listen to Britney Spears and Jock Jams, the superseries of compilations that kicked off in the mid-’90s. Serving baked goods to foodies is a smart business move, they acknowledge. But they’re back this year mostly for the shenanigans.
“It was goofy, it was silly,” says Robert, 33. “Like, the food is great, but it was ludicrously funny.”
Camp gets them out of their routines, their older-younger brother hierarchy. Mid-weekend, they decide to make chocolate-chip cookies, grabbing a recipe from a random blog and serving them, still gooey, as a midafternoon snack. Hours later, campers are still raving. They’re such a hit, in fact, that the brothers decide to sell them once they’re back in Duluth.
“I just gotta tell you guys, your cookies were so good,” a woman says, approaching the pair just before dinner.
“Time-tested recipe,” Robert Lillegard says with a mischievous smile.
The constraints — and resulting creativity — of making meals in the Boundary Waters are part of what inspired Chef Camp’s creation.
This year, cooking over an open fire, some chefs seem more comfortable than others. “This is a little out of my norm,” jokes Raghavan Iyer, a chef and James Beard-award-winning author of six books, as he preps a session on cooking with spices. “I’m used to Four Seasons.”
He then proceeds to create, charmingly chatting along the way, basmati rice, both silky and substantial, smoky and bright.
Across camp, chef Jose Alarcon flips hand-ground, hand-formed sopes over a fire, hopping inside the pit to get a better angle. As executive chef at live-fire Mexican restaurant Popol Vuh, he’s accustomed to the flames.
Later, during her demo on grilled peaches, pastry chef Jo Garrison, of P.S. Steak and Borough, pulls out a surprise “to play with”: a bunch of peach branches. The leaves are edible, she explains, so you can use them to infuse the crème anglaise.
Iyer is among the dozens of campers gathered on the lakeside deck for her session. “Can you eat the leaf as it is? Can I taste one?” He rubs the leaves in his hand, sniffs them, nibbles on one. “It tastes so much like tea.”
Clad in a mix of chef and camper clothing — an apron, plus striped socks and Birkenstock sandals — Garrison whisks and whisks, thickening the sauce as her peaches develop some char. The plan is to flambé the fruit so she grabs the booze: “OK, let’s set this on fire.”
The campers cock their iPhones, ready to Instagram. But the flame won’t catch.
“That’s kind of the beauty of what they’re doing there,” she says later. “You have ideas and general constructs, but then you roll with it based on the circumstances and where you are — which is out in the middle of nowhere.” She had never been to camp before, even as a kid. So it felt a little surreal, she says. The bandannas, the chanting, the bells before meals.
“This is what it’s like in the movies.”
Meals upon meals
After dinner, which might be my seventh meal of the day, somebody hands me a ticket to one of the night’s events. It looks like an old-school restaurant tab, marked for a 10:15 p.m. seating. Just past 10 p.m., a few of us pass by the campfire and the pavilion, wandering into the woods.
There, deep within the tall pines, is a table — elegantly set and lit by candles. Classic rock plays. Leah Korger, clad in an apron, offers us whiskey old fashioneds.
“Welcome to the Blue Collar Supper Club,” Korger says. “You’re probably wondering what the hell it is.”
They explain: It’s “my baby,” an underground supper club steeped in storytelling. The story tonight, during this “nip-sized” version of the multicourse meal, revolves around “all the bars I’ve loved before,” Korger tells us.
We have eaten all day. Our bellies are full. But my nose perks up as the first course is placed before me. A Bloody Mary in salad form: torched heirloom tomatoes with marinated mozzarella and celery leaves. Candied bacon and fried olives. “In true Bloody Mary fashion,” Korger says, “would anybody like a beer chaser?”
No one pulls out their cellphones. It is too dark to take photos, too dark to even make out much of the food. Instead, we eat, letting each bite be a surprise.
Other campers, too, are exploring the darkness. One group meets at the basketball court for a “sensory hike,” flipping off their headlamps and weaving through the woods, talking and tasting. Others gather on the long dock, sipping wine from jars.
I walk down to the shore, look up at the stars.
A canoe, strung with lights, arrives. We hop in, paddling around the lake’s perimeter, laughing when we veer into the weeds. We hook a left and there, floating in the water, is a bartender in a boat.
“Welcome!” he cries.
Beside him are four liqueurs, and we pull the canoe close so we can reach for some pineapple amaro. By that point, full and dreamy, I am more focused on the lights, the stars, the sound of the water lapping against the side of the aluminum canoe. How cool to discover a secret boat in the middle of a lake, a secret dinner party in the middle of the woods.