When it comes to cooking over a campfire, remembering to pack the cast-iron frying pan can be more important than attempting to play outdoors Iron Chef.
Vancouver’s Josh Wolfe should know. As a chef and entrepreneur, he helped launch the food truck Fresh Local Wild, and opened and owned Yaletown’s Good Wolfe Kitchen and Bar. He recently landed at the Black + Blue steakhouse on Alberni Street, a high-end restaurant where the rooftop boasts what he describes as the “coolest outdoor kitchen I’ve ever seen”.
But Wolfe also loves getting away from the roar of the big city. Over the past couple of years he’s set up and helped tweak menus at fly-fishing lodges in northern B.C. There have also been camping trips where the avid fly-fisherman is able to decompress and recharge.
Given Wolfe’s culinary skills and passion for the outdoors, he’s more than equipped to dish out advice on making the most out of cooking while camping. He starts by suggesting you always remember the reason for making the trek out of town.
“At the end of the day, what do we want? We want to put our feet up and relax,” Wolfe says, on the line during a break while multitasking in Vancouver. “To achieve that we can’t do a three-course gourmet meal, plated. Accept it for what it is—it is a simple lifestyle. And the food needs to be simple, so if we do our preparation work beforehand, our weekend can be simple. You just want to enjoy it—who the hell wants to work when they’re camping?”
That prep is key if you want to spend the day in a chair staring at a lake, river, or mountain instead of slaving in front of a cutting board. There’s nothing wrong with aiming high with meals, but packing seven spice jars and a mortar and pestle so you can make that perfect Cajun steak rub isn’t the way to go.
“Camping and cooking outdoors is a real extension of the culinary process,” Wolfe says, “and it makes me look at things with a different set of eyes, and come at things from a different set of logistics. Rubs and marinades are things that do really well when we camp. So I’ll usually premarinate or prerub so that I can have the impact of that without the logistical nightmare that it is to pack everything and cook while I’m outdoors.
“I want big flavours and easy food, so if that means putting in a little work before I’m out there, I’m happy to do that because it’s easy to clean up at home.”
Assuming you’re not camping a block away from a Chevron station with an endless supply of ice, a big challenge of spending time outdoors is keeping things cold.
“Ice is the first problem,” he notes. “Everyone always thinks ‘I’m going to fill the cooler with ice and then pack it with food.’ I do it a little different. I turn the food into ice. Simple stuff works really well—everyone loves to take smokies or hot dogs or sausages and those are products that freeze really well, so they need to get used as ice. And they need to get put into the plan on the second day as stuff starts defrosting.”
The bigger and denser the product, the longer it’s going to stay frozen. Instead of buying a couple of eight-ounce steaks, he’ll get a 16-ounce one and then freeze it to use as ice for a couple of days. It’s then cut in half before going on the grill.
When backpacking, Wolfe takes super-lightweight cookware that’s often titanium-coated, the downside being that doesn’t do well on high-BTU white-gas stoves. For car camping, different rules come into play.
“My recommendation to people when they go car camping is to bring a stove with them—a one-burner, two-burner, or whatever,” Wolfe notes. “The thing people don’t do, that they should do, is make dinner on it once. Before you go camping, make dinner on it at home outside. You need to understand what kind of heat source that it is, its efficiency as a heat source, and the relationship between that heat source and the pans you’re taking camping.
“The biggest trouble people have when they cook on an open fire or a camp stove is that they’ve never done it before. All of a sudden everything is burned and scorched and you can’t wash the pans. When you’re backpacking, if you’ve scorched your pan and burned your dinner, tomorrow is a difficult thing to get to.”
A good-quality grill, he argues, is essential, partly because campsites rarely have a decent one, and partly because it’s great for cooking everything from vegetables to burgers to steaks.
“If you’re only taking one cooking device, I’d take a really great grill over a pot and pan,” Wolfe says. “You can put your pots on there, boil water, boil your eggs in the morning, make oatmeal. Buy a grill that’s heavy, with its own legs to stand on, and it will be your best friend.”
As for the firepit, don’t try cooking over a roaring fire. Instead, build a fire up an hour before you want to cook to create a hot base of heavy, bright-red coals. That will also help prevent food from being oversmoked.
“Flame itself is not hot enough to cook—all it does is burn the outside,” Wolfe says. “Fire is also very dry, so when you cook over a fire all you’re doing is evaporating moisture rapidly, which is why we tend to overcook things. The coals made by the wood actually emit humidity and moisture.”
His number one tip for cooking outdoors? That would be accepting the fact that no one ends up being a campfire Bobby Flay or Cat Cora their first or second time at bat.
“You gotta screw it up first,” he says with a laugh. “That’s just the reality. I’ve gone through it, and so has everyone else. You gotta screw it up before you get it right.”