WAYNESBORO, Pa. — Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series of profiles of local restaurant chefs.
Chris Carp has been executive chef of Capital Camps & Retreat Center, a conference center and summer camp, for three years. Founded as a rustic retreat center for Jewish communities in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Capital Retreat Center caters to Jewish and non-Jewish groups from 10 to 500 or more.
One unique aspect of the facility is that the kitchen is strictly kosher, with a religious-based separation of meat and dairy items.
This was a whole new experience for Carp.
"The first year was really rough. I just couldn't figure out what this was all about," he said. "It's been a challenge, but it's made me think outside the box about what I can do."
Carp chatted with me in his small office. On his desk was a photo of Kalea, the 2-year-old daughter of Carp and his wife, Ali.
What does Kalea's name mean?
It means bright and clear. It's Hawaiian. I've been surfing since I was a little kid. I grew up surfing. Me and my dad went on surf trips every weekend. That culture has always been a part of me. Figured I'd pass it on.
So where'd you grow up?
Oh, yeah — the surfing capital of the world.
(Laughs) My dad and I would drive down to Cape Hatteras (N.C.) or Wrightsville Beach (N.C.) every weekend. We'd camp. I'm not from a rich family at all. That's how we'd go surfing every weekend. My dad's been surfing since he was, like, 16. He grew up in Florida.
When did you decide to become a chef?
I was more of a social person than an academic person. When I finished high school, I worked in restaurants. And during that time, I was going to community college in Roanoke. And then I started to take a culinary class offered at the community college. I was about two weeks into it, and I said, "You know what? This is something I can do. I feel comfortable, like I have a natural gift for it." That's what led me to go to culinary school.
What school did you go to?
I went to Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh. It was an accelerated program. I was there a little over a year and a half.
How long have you been a chef?
I'm 26, and I (graduated from culinary school and) started for Hyatt Dulles when I was 21. But really, culinary school is not going to teach you how to cook. It's not going to teach you how to be a chef. It's going to give you the foundation.
Being a chef is managing a whole team of people to produce a quality product. It's not just cooking. If you can cook great, great. You're a great cook. But being a chef is being able to take on the entire thing and being able to overcome obstacles.
Did you have a mentor after culinary school?
Yes. My boss at Hyatt — Chris Bifano — was awesome. He taught me so much. He's actually now the corporate executive chef for Yahoo.
What drew you to work here at Capital Retreat Center?
I was sous chef at Hyatt, and I was talking to my boss, and I said, "I'm ready to go somewhere big." And he said, "Your restaurant skills are awesome. You've got all it takes there, but to be a more complete chef, you need more banquet experience." That's doing food for two, three, four, five hundred people, instead of cooking one dish at a time.
This is a pretty unique place.
It's funny here, because we get from Orthodox Jews to Greenpeace. We've had some really cool groups. Last year, we had Spirit Voyages, a yoga group. Four hundred of them. They were here for a week. They did yoga nonstop, and it was all vegan/vegetarian for 21 meals.
What's your approach to cooking?
When I got here, there was a lot of pre-made, frozen stuff. I completely changed that around. We make probably 95 percent of our stuff in-house — dressings, soups, sauces, everything we make in-house. We're 100 percent from scratch.
I had a bat mitzvah come in last year from a wealthy family, a very wealthy family. They paid Carla Hall from "Top Chef" to do a demo here. They could have easily gone anywhere else. At the end of the day, the guy came up and shook my hand. The mom hugged me. They said, "This is way more than we expected."
Are you Jewish?
No. Nobody that works in the kitchen or out in our dining room is Jewish.
How many folks do you have in the kitchen?
At this time of year, I have myself, my sous chef, two cooks and a baker.
Five? That's it?
That's it. So, you figure, when we get some of these groups in here, that have three or four hundred people who will be here for a week, it's tough.
In a hotel, you get a party of three hundred. Yeah, it's some work, but usually they're here for one meal. Here, it's three meals a day. When you get people here for a week, that's four hundred people for 21 meals. It sucks the life out of you. And you're cranking out a lot of food.
How is it being a young executive chef?
I'm managing and trying to teach people that are double my age. It was a challenge for me here at first. But I think I've gained enough respect for what I do and the way I run the kitchens and the quality of food I produce, that it's a nonissue.
So tell me about the kosher kitchen.
This kosher thing — I was scared, to say the least. I got a book, two inches thick. It was a huge handbook of the rules. We have a rabbi, Daniel Saslow. He's here every day. I don't even have keys to my own kitchen. I can't open it up. If you go to cook something and you want an oven on or you want a burner on, you call, "Rabbi!" He has to come cut it on for you. You cannot cut it on for yourself.
Then, on top of that, you can't use pork. You can't use shellfish. I was really stumped at first. And that's why, when I first started, I wasn't sure this was going to be the place for me. How much can you really do?
But at the same time, it's helped me become a lot more creative.
I've found in my three years here that there's a way around everything in the kosher world. So (a group comes in and they want) chicken with a spinach cream sauce. And you're thinking, "There's no way that's going to work, because you can't use meat and dairy together."
But they make a product that's a nondairy creamer. Problem solved. Use fresh herbs, fresh garlic, take that nondairy creamer and build it up with flavor, and you have a cream sauce where you wouldn't think you'd be able to have one.
Sure, and you could use some vegan work-arounds.
Exactly. Plus, with being kosher, I think you're getting a more (pure) ingredient. When you get into, say, fish, for it to be kosher, it has to come in fresh, with the skin on. So if you get fish here, you know it's fresh, because I can't get it not fresh.
Also, your vegetables. A lot of the frozen vegetables are no good for me. If they're not (processed) under rabbinical supervision, you can't use it. But all fresh produce is kosher. Rabbi has to check for bugs. But then again, same thing: You're getting a great product, because you have Rabbi sitting back there with a light and checking each little piece of lettuce, making sure there's no bugs.
So how is it working with the rabbi?
We have a really good relationship. And he's taken time to express that to me. He's worked in places where the rabbi and the kitchen staff don't get along. The kitchen staff always try to sneak stuff by them.
That would be so bad.
He trusts me. I'm not going to do that to him. I'm not Jewish, but I respect what they do.
There's been times I've got produce in and he goes to check it for bugs. He does multiple washes on it, but he says, "Sorry, you can't use this." The first couple times, I'd get mad and just walk away from him. I'm not a screaming person, so I'm not going to sit there and scream at him. So I just walk away.
Now I've gotten to the point when I just say, "All right. I'll call (my supplier) and see what else he's got he can bring up for me."
You've learned a lot in three years.
That's what makes this industry so much fun. You can be in this industry for 40 years, and still learn stuff. You're never at the end of learning with this business. It's great. I wouldn't choose anything else.