Spotlight on Staff:  Chef Christine Richer

Christine preparing boxes of home-made Christmas cookies for kids at the Walker School, a Sandy Island post-season group.

While Sandy campers choose to participate in a variety of activities during their camp week, there is one place where every one of us is sure to gather – the Dining Hall.  For many years now, Chef Christine Richer has been working her behind-the-scenes magic in the Sandy Island kitchen, bringing us an amazing array of delicious food options at mealtimes.   Christine described what a typical workday was like for her and what a week in the kitchen is like, from the point of view of Sandy Island’s food services staff.

On most days, Christine wakes at 4 AM and, while she is revving up the stoves for the day ahead, she uses two hours of “quiet time” to make her plans for the day.   “I review the day’s menus and decide what needs to be done at which time.  I also run through the list of which staff members are working each meal that day.  As I’m getting out the food for breakfast, I check the items and quantities we’ll need for the various meals that day.  By the time my nine kitchen staff-members show up at 6:30 AM, I’ve got a mental check-list of everything that needs to be done that day, the time we’ll start each job, and which people will be assigned to each task.   That’s my plan for the day, and I make a similar plan every single day. ”

While one meal is being cooked and served, vegetables are being chopped and breads and desserts are being baked in preparation for the next meal.   Christine says, “By 1 PM, after lunch is served, we usually have everything ready for supper and I can give the whole kitchen crew a few hours off.  I take my power nap at 1:00 and that energizes me for the next stage.  I’m usually back in the darkened kitchen by 3:00, again using the silence to plan the steps for the evening meal.  That planning time is probably the most important time for me.”  After supper Christine lingers just long enough to see which menu items were popular and which foods did not get served.  “I walk home thinking about how a new recipe was received, or what I can do the next day with the extra food.  Un-served pasta might be the basis for a pasta salad at the next cookout, for example.  I hate to waste food.”  After supper, Christine gets to check in with her son Cole for an hour or so.  “I’m so happy that Cole will be a full-time staff member at Sandy this summer,” Christine says.  “He’ll be working in the Program Department and I’ll get to see him every day!”   Christine is usually in bed by 9 PM but says her brain is still tuned into food.   “Sometimes I dream of a new recipe while I’m sleeping.”

Some items in Christine’s weekly calendar need to happen at a specific time.  For example, our island location means that food needs to be ordered and delivered on a specific schedule.  Christine orders food twice each week and those orders are delivered on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  On those days, Christine mobilizes staff from different departments to make the food-delivery process run smoothly:  boat drivers pick up the order at Harilla; service crew members wait with a truck at the Sandy dock to receive the shipment and drive it to the Dining Hall; kitchen crew is on stand-by so that all the food is put away as soon as it is delivered to the Kitchen loading dock.

Other aspects of Christine’s job require some flexibility.  Christine commented that running the food service program at Sandy Island is complicated to describe because there are so many variables, all of which must mesh together perfectly for meals and events to work properly.  “We have to be flexible,” she says.  “A number of variables change from week to week, and those all have to be taken into account when we plan the food items and the quantities we serve.   The number of campers, their ages, their food preferences and allergies, even the weather will affect what people eat.   A few years ago we had a lot of teenage boys one week and they set a new record:  they ate 600 grilled cheese sandwiches for one lunch on one day!”  Kitchen staff members also prepare special foods, such as snacks for Little Red Schoolhouse, or bag lunches for CAVE and Junior day trips, or pizza for the store.

The varied job descriptions for food service staff members give us an idea of the myriad tasks and the amount of work that needs to be done in the Sandy Island kitchen each day.   One head chef (that’s Christine), two assistant cooks, a baker, a special diets consultant, salad bar staff, a Dining Hall manager who manages the drinks counters and handles scheduling, plus a number of servers,  as well as personnel to run the dish washing room and pot-scrubbing sink and post-meal clean-up, all are necessary and are on-duty for every meal.

When there is a pause in the cooking or serving, Christine loves to analyze the way foods are presented, or to imagine a different way to prepare a recipe, or to think of ways to streamline the serving process.  “For example, I really don’t like lines.  We serve more protein at the salad bar now and that has made the lunch lines shorter,” she says.  “I’m currently toying with the idea of a separate soup station.  Soup is really popular during the cooler weeks of the camping season, as well as on rainy days.”  Christine is also quick to respond to unexpected events as well.  “One night the freezer went off and all my bread dough for pizza started to ‘proof,’ or rise.  In the morning I saw all that rising dough, so I decided to make calzones for lunch.  That turned out to be such a hit that we added calzones to the regular menu.   In food service, you have to take both mishaps – and unexpected successes – in stride.”

When asked about her favorite part of working at Sandy Island, Christine immediately answered, “Working with the kids!  Once in a while one of the kitchen crew decides they want to work in the food service profession and that’s fun for me.   I try to give them a chance to do some cooking. But I also want all my staff to understand that a meal is part of a bigger picture, so I try to explain the reasons behind my decisions and my schedules to them. If they understand the philosophy behind food preparation, they have a better overall understanding of what the industry is like.  I especially want them to know that campers, staff, off-season guests at Sandy Island, everyone wants to sit and enjoy each other’s company at meal time.  If the food is good, if the meal is presented nicely, if everything comes together on time, then people tend to relax while they eat, and they enjoy both the meal and the company even more.  It all works together!” Christine tells the kitchen staff, “You need good healthy food as a basis for a healthy life.  Cooking isn’t just about eating food.  It’s about enjoying life!”

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