The MN Camp That Teaches Cooking is Back

The third annual Chef Camp brings top-tier culinary talent to the north woods

Half of a pizza made at Chef Camp near Sturgeon Lake in Minnesota.
A creation from Chef Camp’s outdoor pizza oven

photos by tj turner

Most quests for fresh pizza toppings begin and end in the produce section, but how about a forest hike along a Norway pine-lined path? If scanning the ground for edible indigenous mushrooms amid a bed of pine needles is more your speed, there’s Chef Camp. The cheese, sauces, dough, and outdoor pizza oven are waiting back at the campsite.

Here on the shores of Sturgeon Lake, about an hour southwest of Duluth, this year’s Chef Camp will repurpose the 120-year-old YMCA Camp Miller over Labor Day weekend. About 100 adult campers still get to indulge in the site’s throwback summer-camp vibes—holing up in bunk cabins or pitching tents—but activities include a heaping helping of culinary adventure.

Chef Camp was launched in 2016 by two Twin Cities-based food enthusiasts: Dave Friedman, a lawyer whose firm serves food-industry startups, and James Norton, editor of online food magazine Heavy Table. After Norton hosted a dinner with nonprofit Save the Boundary Waters—pulling food-laden sleds into the wild with Red River Kitchen chef J.D. Fratzke—he and Friedman struck on the idea of an adult summer camp that uses a woodsy setting for a back-to-basics, rustic style of gourmet cooking.

Campers with all levels of kitchen experience take classes led by a rotation of top-tier Minnesota talent, ranging from Boundary Waters Dutch oven techniques with Fratzke to Mediterranean cooking and impromptu octopus butchery with Minneapolis’ Red Hen Gastrolab chef Nettie Colón, plus cast-iron seasoning and knife maintenance lessons with knife expert Nick Zdon.

In 2017, I got to experience Chef Camp firsthand. Our mornings started with an indulgent breakfast: sweet rolls from Mon Petit Chéri and pour overs by Tiny Footprint Coffee, followed by a buffet of scrambled eggs, crepes, and Canadian bacon. Fires were stoked during breakfast for the classes and meals that would come throughout the day.

People waiting in line to grab food from a buffet table in the woods at Chef Camp near Sturgeon Lake in Minnesota.
Chef Camp’s barbecue buffet

Last year’s new addition was the aforementioned wood-fired pizza oven, put to expert use in a demo by local chef and outdoorsman Lukas Leaf. Foraged mushrooms accompanied ’nduja (spicy pork), venison ragù, and a spread of cheeses. The campers got a hands-on-experience mixing flavors—and, later, feasting—on dough made by Leaf, a veteran of Minneapolis Italian restaurant Al Vento.

Not all of the Chef Camp activities are overtly food-related, though. The Color Wars comprise a competition among bandana-clad factions of campers working to earn temporary tattoos. In true summer-camp fashion, there is also archery, a climbing wall, and canoeing available throughout the day. Collecting tattoos and participating in other challenges—like group songs during meals and an early-morning jump in the lake—earn points for teams. The prize, called the Beer-amid, is all of the unopened beer that remains at the end of the weekend.

Chef Camp at YMCA Camp Miller near Sturgeon Lake in Minnesota.
Chef Camp is held at YMCA Camp Miller near Sturgeon Lake

For dinner, we sat in the open-air mess hall, enjoying a family-style rice and beans platter, gazpacho, and roasted goat from the grass-fed Shepherd Song Farm in Wisconsin. Each course came with a drink pairing provided by Bittercube and Fulton Beer. After dinner, we enjoyed end-of-day activities, such as illuminated canoeing and a campfire social, complete with a canoe full of beer on ice.

For Chef Camp’s third year, the featured chef is Jorge Guzman, the James Beard Award finalist formerly of Surly Brewing Co.’s restaurant. He’ll teach pibil, a Yucatán method of cooking that involves digging a pit and cooking spiced meat underground for hours. Karl Gerstenberger, head chef at St. Paul’s Waldmann Brewery & Wurstery, will take on whole-animal butchery while Colón practices traditional Incan pit cooking, called pachamanca. (Vegetarians are welcome, although there aren’t vegan or gluten-free menus—yet, anyway.)

Leah Korger of The Wedge performing a demonstration at Chef Camp near Sturgeon Lake in Minnesota.
A demo led by The Wedge’s Leah Korger

The $550 ticket to Chef Camp, plus tax, covers food, beverages, classes, activities, and cost of tent camping. If you prefer a bunk, upgrade to a cabin, and those who want to keep their creature comforts can book private lodging.

No matter your style, this year’s Chef Camp, slated August 31 through September 2, will take you from hot dogs and s’mores to fresh and gourmet in ways you didn’t think was doable in Minnesota’s wilds.

Eat, Play, Stay Near Sturgeon Lake

Moose Lake Brewing Company

Eight miles north of Camp Miller is the town of Moose Lake. Enjoy this brewery’s patio overlooking the lake, order house-made tap beers, and pizza from Poor Gary’s Pizza is up the street. 

Joe Jitters Coffee House

For coffee, sweets, smoothies, and heartier options for breakfast and lunch, this cafe has you covered. Even more comfort food options await at Lazy Moose Grill, a local diner.

Banning State Park

For overnight stays in true north woods fashion, Banning State Park is just south of Sturgeon Lake. It has drive-in, electric, and canoe-in sites. Plus, Banning is bordered by the Kettle River, a whitewater paddling destination.

Digital Extra: Forage for Pizza Toppings

Check out the wood-fired pizza oven that debuted at last year’s Chef Camp before reading about the food adventures awaiting in the north woods this month.