I went to camp this week. Not weenie-roasting, Kumbaya-singing, capture-the-flag camp, but the Tom Douglas' Culinary Camp: five days of demos and eating, cooking competitions and more eating, then some drinking and some snacks, and maybe the chance to chat up a famous chef like Vikram Vij from Vij's in Vancouver, B.C., a restaurant that's so freaking fantastic people are willing to wait three hours for a table.
Holly Smith from the incredibly lovely Café Juanita showed us how to make magnificent risotto and Duskie Este from Zazu near Santa Rosa offered tips on braising bunny. ("I'm using Vin Santo because Tom's paying," she ribbed her former boss.)
I was there for one blissful day, in the audience as an observer, not a cook. But before I knew what I was saying, I asked chef Tom, "Do you want any help?" Next thing I knew I was wearing an apron standing in front of a roomful of fervent food lovers, trying to stuff a hare.
"Slice this onion and lemon and use these herbs and then wrap it in pancetta," he instructed. "Oh, and while you're doing all that, tell me about that book you were going to write about going from being a critic to being a cook," he prodded.
"Ah. Umm. Well," I stammered. Yeah. I'm still working on it.
After filling the cavity with lemon slices and onions, I showed him and asked, "Is this what you had in mind?"
"Well, you need to take those out and put the herbs in first," he said.
Uh-oh—I'm messing up. In front of a famous chef and a bunch of culinary campers, who had paid big bucks to see how pros roll, not some fumbling former food critic.
When it came to wrapping the rabbit in pancetta, I again took off in the wrong direction, but got a gentle tug back on track from Herschell, one of the able assistants. "Start by laying it on top of the back and bringing it back around," he advised.
Of course, that makes perfect sense. The pros make it look so easy. It's a mix of natural ability and repetition—like figure skaters or people who knit without looking at their needles.
I trussed the bacon-wrapped, lemon-herb-and-onion-stuffed bunny and it was rotisserie ready. Hot dog, I did it! ...In twice the time it would take a seasoned cook. But I'm a gamer—I'm willing to try. That's got to count for something, right?
"Do you want to spin for a prize?" chef Tom asked.
Yes, campers often spin for prizes like gift certificates at one of Tom's restaurants or bottles of wine including Northstar and Col Solare.
I already felt as if I had scored my prize, so I let someone else take my turn. (She won a knife. Is this the best camp ever or what?) I stepped up and I didn't suck. I still don't know if I'll ever feel like a pro, but I'm getting there.