HOPE, Maine — At Alford Lake Camp, there’s a song for every occasion.
On a rainy Thursday in August, the lunchtime song tally hit four: There was a song to begin the meal, a song to end the meal, a song to welcome back old friends of the camp who were visiting, and a song to commemorate the kitchen staff for outstanding food.
“They spend so much time preparing our food,” the hundred-plus girls and their counselors sang to Kelli Scott, the executive chef, and Kaleonuiokalanikaholokai Kanamu “Nui” Grube, her sous chef. “We’d like them to know that we think it’s very good.”
When the applause tapered out, Scott laughed and said, “It’s like we’re in a sorority-slash-I-don’t-even-know.” She and Grube have cooked for all kinds of venues — fast-food joints, high-end restaurants, and even the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. But nowhere quite like Alford Lake, a summer camp for girls here in Maine.
Alford Lake, in turn, has never had someone quite like Scott — an African-American chef from Louisiana who’s teaching campers to appreciate cuisines and flavors from all over the world. You won’t find halfhearted cafeteria food on Scott’s menus: The meal that earned that day’s song of praise, for example, was an Asian-inspired lunch of homemade bao and braised pork. While preparing dinner, Scott and Grube tried to figure out the best way to develop socarrat — the highly coveted crust at the bottom of a paella pan — using the camp’s basic cookware.
Ellis, a 12-year-old camper from Idaho, said it best: “They make things you wouldn’t expect to be at a summer camp for over a hundred girls.”
What Scott and her team do every day is something of a logistical feat. They prepare three nutritious meals for more than a hundred campers and staffers who spend their days canoeing, swimming, and doing other activities that result in big appetites. And Scott eschews premade frozen food — by her calculations, the Alford Lake kitchen is “89 percent from scratch.”
But what’s even more remarkable is Scott’s ability to conquer the pickiest palates. Girls who have grown up on diets of pasta and chicken develop an appetite for curry and jambalaya. Avowed fish-haters come home from the Alford Lake with a new appreciation for seafood.
“I’m a firm believer that most of the things we do not like are just things we haven’t had prepared properly,” Scott said.
Still, the kitchen staff tends to make some adjustments to make dishes more kid-friendly. Grube, who doesn’t usually shy away from spice, said he tries to “tone down” the heat when cooking at camp. “There are some dishes we refuse to step back on: jambalaya, red beans, and rice,” he said. “But for the most part, we do try to cater to the children and not set them on fire.”
A single mention of Scott’s name in the dining room can send a table of campers into a tizzy. Nearly every girl seems to have a story of culinary transformation. “At home, I only like quesadillas, pasta, and chicken,” said Maeve, a 9-year-old from Illinois. “Here, I eat every single meal.”
“It really changes the way you eat,” said Audrey, a 12-year-old from Georgia. “I say the word ‘divine’ a lot. I heard it on a TV show.”
The campwide excitement over Scott’s food is due, in some part, to Scott’s presence outside the kitchen. She frequently delivers a short speech before meals begin, detailing the history of a dish and the ingredients that comprise it. Afterward, if time permits, Scott, makes rounds through the dining room for high-fives and banter with her adoring fans.
“This is a major part of my life now,” Scott deadpanned as campers and counselors crooned a goofy song in an attempt to make her laugh.
But mealtimes make up a small fraction of the 24-hour sleepaway camp operation: During the summer, Scott’s days might begin as early as 5 a.m. The long days in the kitchen are made easier by the camaraderie among staff members — particularly Scott and Grube, who have worked together since long before they came to Alford Lake.
Scott and Grube met seven years ago, cooking for the Masters Tournament. Scott recalled that the pair “didn’t get along” during the first few days of that job.
“We hated each other’s guts,” Grube clarified. “I was inexperienced. I didn’t know what I was doing half the time, and Kelli didn’t have the patience for me.”
Grube eventually proved himself worthy, and he and Scott became friends and collaborators — both of them said that Scott is the big-picture visionary, while Grube is more of a workhorse. Grube came to Alford Lake last summer at Scott’s recommendation, when the kitchen became suddenly short-staffed: The executive chef quit, leaving Scott, who had been hired as a sous chef, to lead the kitchen.
“I was like, it’s my day off, but OK,” recalled Scott. For several weeks, she and her colleagues churned out meals without a second-in-command, but eventually she decided to call her old friend for help.
“I could hear over the phone, she was just tired,” said Grube, who had been cooking for Driftwood Cask and Barrel, a gastropub in Louisiana. “And I was like, y’all aren’t going to do that to my Kel.” He was on a plane to the East Coast within days.
Such big moves aren’t entirely unusual for Grube and Scott, who routinely travel around the country for short-term jobs. After camp ends this summer, the two of them will cater a wedding for an Alford Lake employee and then run a series of pop-ups. But even if the camp is just one stop in the itinerary, both of them see Alford Lake as a special gig.
Scott takes pride in the educational aspect of her job. “It’s more than just cooking,” she said, “for me it’s really about breaking down barriers of cultures that people may have for whatever reason.” That project seems to be part of Scott’s broader worldview: She grew up in Walker, La. — a town that is “notorious for KKK involvement,” in her words.
After an upsetting childhood incident, “my parents had to sit me down and be like, Kelli, your skin color is different, and this is why this happened,” Scott said. “I made it a mission in my life to love people past that place.”
The diversity represented by Scott’s menus is not necessarily reflected in the camp’s population. Scott is one of few African-American people at Alford Lake: The camp, which opened in 1907, is largely staffed and attended by white people. When asked how this shapes her efforts as a chef, Scott demurred. For her, the work is about honoring cultural traditions and starting conversations, “not just in this space.”
When asked if Alford Lake encourages its students to discuss race or class differences, Sue McMullan, the camp director, reiterated the camp’s emphasis on “what’s in here,” pointing to her heart. “If we carry out our mission about being who we are on the inside first,” she said, “it takes away all that other stuff.”
Feeding a camp full of young people is a serious responsibility, but it has its special perks, as well. “We get the appreciation you don’t get in restaurants,” Grube said. “No one sings for you in a restaurant.”
Scott said the isolated, insular quality of the camp has strengthened her friendship with Grube: “We leave, and we’re like, no one will understand this.”