The Debut of Chef Camp’s Wood-Fired Pizza Oven

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

This post is sponsored by Chef Camp and was written by Peter Sieve.

Look, I’ll be up front with you. I was never into the idea of summer camp as a kid. I grew up in the city. The thought of singing Kumbaya around a campfire with a bunch of kids I didn’t know sounded like the worst thing in the world — I already had my neighborhood buds, we had our bikes, and we owned the city in the summer. Leave camp to the dorky kids who were super pumped to make lanyards or whatever.

But you know what? This past Saturday, up at Camp Miller on Sturgeon Lake — one of the oldest YMCA camps in Minnesota — I began to regret that I never went as a youngster. At this pizza party/media preview event, a small group of lucky folks were given a taste of what’s to come at the two Chef Camp weekends happening Sept. 1-3 and 8-10.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The initial exhale upon arriving at the beautiful Camp Miller grounds was worth the drive alone, and the mid-August weather couldn’t have been calibrated more perfectly. The comforting smell of wood smoke enveloped us, drifting over from the freshly constructed (and permanently installed) pizza oven, a project led by the Northern Clay Center. Emily Rheingens of Mon Petit Chéri bakery and cafe was already creating delicious appetizers — a garlicky gazpacho, mushroom tarts, and deviled eggs.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Built around the principles of cooking with fire, foraging, and generally appreciating the beauty and bounty that surrounds us here in the north woods, Chef Camp is a winning concept. The earnest joy of those involved was palpable at the media preview, and it won over even this camping-cynical heart. Soon after a few bites of the tasty appetizers, some of us were led on a walk through the woods by forager and author Kathy Yerich. Kathy taught us how to spy a variety of mushrooms, and she expertly led us through the snaking trails along the lake. We returned with a bounty of beautiful fungi the likes of which I’d never seen, and we learned about the qualities — and dangers — of each one. Cool!

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Soon after, chef J.D. Fratzke (of Bar Brigade, Delicata, and Red River Kitchen) started slinging pizzas in the Delicata style. The beautiful, chewy blackened crusts arrived in a few variations — one featured red sauce, fresh ricotta and Italian sausage, and another with roasted vegetables and lightly dressed fresh arugula. Standing near the lake in the sun and snatching fresh slices of these pies, hot out of a wood-fired oven, with a cold beer in hand — this is what it means to truly live.

But wait, there’s more! Have you ever shot arrows at foam deer? Chef Camp gives you that opportunity. The glorious few who successfully hit the poor thing were honored like the gods and goddesses they are.

Next, we found a canoe down by the docks and spent a while lazing near the shoreline in the slowly waning sunlight, pizza-sleepy and blissed out.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

We ended the day making s’mores and swinging around lazily in sky chairs at the campfire, happy campers one and all. Not a lanyard in sight.

What a day! And to think it was just a taste of what all the lucky campers will experience at Chef Camp in its full glory. The first weekend (Sept. 1-3, currently waitlisted) will feature sessions with Vincent Francoual, Erik Sather, Jason Engelhart, Nick Kosevich, Yia Vang, and Kathy Yerich. The second weekend (Sept. 8-10, tickets still available) will have J.D. Fratzke, Nettie Colón, Brad Leone, Nick Kosevich, Brian Merkel, and Lukas Leaf. That’s some crazy-amazing Minnesota food and beverage firepower. With the pizza party/preview being as fun as it was, I can’t wait to see how things go down at Chef Camp for real.

Maybe I’ll even bring home a lanyard.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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