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Published: 10/21/2004

Sylvania Township: Camp grub whipped into haute cuisine at Camp Miakonda

BY MIKE JONES
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Tom Elliott is the executive chef at Camp Miakonda Tom Elliott is the executive chef at Camp Miakonda
ZAPOTOSKY / BLADE Enlarge

He doesn't create S'mores with portabella mushrooms sandwiched around feta cheese, nor do beans and franks come with a dill sauce, but the executive chef at Camp Miakonda does oversee the preparation of more than 17,000 meals annually at the wooded retreat, and he's credited with helping increase the camp's profile.

Tom Elliott said that his job as the executive chef at the Boy Scout camp on West Sylvania Avenue in Sylvania Township is the result of a dare more than anything else.

After retiring from the military and later from Teledyne Continental Motors, Mr. Elliott was working as a volunteer, including duties for the Boy Scouts, when he pointed out more than 10 years ago some problems with what was then a recently expanded and modernized kitchen at the camp.

"They said, 'do you think you can do it better?'and...'' Mr. Elliott raises his hands and looks around the large dining hall suggesting that things seem to have worked out.

John Bolster, director of operations at Camp Miakonda, said he and Mr. Elliott have worked as a team over those years to open the camp to organizations that use the facilities while camping programs aren't ongoing.

The chef's interest in cooking "began when my grandmother took me to the stove and said, 'stir this,' and I've enjoyed cooking ever since.''

Other than being an assistant manager at an officers' club in the military, Mr. Elliott's experiences as a cook, however, were confined to preparing meals at home for his wife and six children.

The job wasn't offered so much for Mr. Elliott's ability to turn out haute cuisine, as for his general administrative and managerial ability.

For instance, Mr. Elliott said, the first thing you need is a clean kitchen. The camp's had become a mess.

"People thought they had cleaned it after using it, but it wasn't really clean. Others left food which they thought the next group might use, but they didn't and old food started turning bad.''

That's when he was dared to do better.

Since then, Mr. Elliott has become active in the Maumee Valley Chef Association, and is certified as a chef.

He is taking courses so he can judge the abilities of aspiring chefs when they take a test in food preparation.

Although all chefs are concerned with sanitation and nutrition, the latter, he said is of particular significance at Camp Miakonda.

"We have people who are physically active here and we have to be sure of the nutrition," he said. "We don't serve empty calories.''

Mr. Bolster said Mr. Elliott wouldn't admit it, but he mentors many youngsters who have an interest in culinary arts as a career.

"He doesn't just tell them to wash the dishes - he explains why it's so important in a food-service operation," Mr. Bolster said.

Mr. Elliott said that what some people think of as extra effort, to him is just doing what makes for a well-run organization.

Although many of the meals are basic meals for campers, the chef is capable of dealing with more elaborate offerings.

Doug Haynam, president of the Erie Council of the Boy Scouts of America, which owns the camp, said he heard raves about the food during a recent Feast in the Forest.

Mr. Haynam said the meal was prepared for supporters of the local Scouting organization and prospective supporters.

"We wanted to show them the camp and talk about what we're all about,'' he said.

The meal included salmon with dill sauce, tournedos of beef, wild mushrooms, smashed garlic red potatoes, a blend of green beans, and ended with a selection of desserts.

"What we have is a community jewel,'' Mr. Haynam said, but for years the organization wasn't doing anything with it other than Scouting-related activities.

He said the kitchen is an attribute when hosting outside organizations at the camp.

Mr. Bolster said the camp and its kitchen are now busy year-round with corporate use and use by charitable organizations.



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