I’ll Take A Serving Of That!

By Ruth Bennett

At Camp Victory in Cartwright, Okla., I work with guests on their schedules, noting when they expect to do certain activities. Some activities inadvertently create a certain tension. For example, serving dinner at 7 p.m., when lunch was at 12 p.m. without any other opportunities to eat throughout the day, will provide some anxious attitudes ... dare I say anger!

The guests have left everything familiar to be in a small community set up by strangers. Some have arrived alone. They don’t know where anything is, their bunk is next to someone they are quite sure qualifies for stranger danger, they are told where to be and when, and the person in charge seems mighty cheery about the situation. Supposedly, all of their needs will be met, but somewhere in the first few hours they get a signal from their gut. Looking around, they see no way to relieve that signal, so a point of possible tension has emerged. At home, they can appease this need at any time, heading for the refrigerator or fast-food supply at will. Now, however, surrounded by this new community, they wonder if anyone is thinking about this need but them.

Smells Good
We do not choose when to be hungry. Food is a basic need. We can ignore a hunger pang for a while, but at some point it becomes an irritant that grabs our complete attention and demands to be met. This might be a lost point with those who work with food—most cooks can put something into their mouth at any time.

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At some point during a camper’s journey, he or she looks around ... what’s that smell? Food! The instinct is to follow that smell at all costs, but the cheery leader encourages them to finish the task at hand. At long last they are waiting in line, looking eagerly at the plates emerging from the kitchen in the hands of other campers. With eyes popping, they finally get a look at the food options—are they even edible? But, wait, who’s that with my plate? Looking away from the food, their eyes land on the cook. Do they see someone who more resembles the Pillsbury Doughboy or Gordon Ramsey?

For me, this encounter is one I hold in the highest regard. Camps are focused on providing positive, new experiences. These suggestions are often foreign to them, requiring a decision to be made, but if the environment supports the basic needs, their lives can change.

For Good Measure
If only that camper knew what the cook’s day had been like so far. He got up that morning before God did, set off the kitchen alarm coming in the back door, and the eggs set out to thaw overnight didn’t notice the temperature change. The cook found a voicemail from the food service stating that the truck can’t make it today, causing him to quickly edit  the menu and send someone from a short-handed staff to the store. But the store run doesn’t solve everything. The sanitizer on the truck—needed to address the climbing dish mountain—is a loss that only irritates again and again each time the cook sees it. The whole team has agonized in pulling this meal together and around the corner comes a camper who has a special request. FREEZE! It is right here ... in this moment ... where the philosophy of service emerges.

It was in the kitchen of Triple R Ranch in Chesapeake, Va., in the 1980s during my college summers when my philosophy of food service was formed under the tutelage of Ruth Olbris, a cook (along with her husband Joe) and chief inspirer. I didn’t realize that my philosophy was being formed at the time because she joyfully approached all challenges with creativity and hope, gazing deeply and genuinely into everyone’s eyes. If a camper made an unreasonable request, she laughed heartily and offered what she had without feeling offended or making the camper feel dumb for asking. In 2014, I listened to Ryan Magnun of Chick-fil-a, Inc., discuss how his company made going the second mile, second nature. His definition of genuine service is not only fulfilling a promise, but making people feel good while doing that.

How did you, as a cook, see yourself responding to that camper who had a distasteful look at your food and made a request for something else? What expressions do they see from the person who controls their portion sizes?  What conversations are going on in the background? Are you and your staff projecting the day’s troubles onto the campers, or have you intentionally centered yourselves to make a difference to those you encounter? And are you serving the food with a smile and not clenching every muscle when some campers fail the simple task of taking the plate to their table but dropping it during the busiest rush? Your help here can quite literally change that camper’s life. 

Cooking With Care
To instill this atmosphere in your kitchen, consider the following:

Set aside time to train all staff members regarding difficult situations that might arise and how you would like them to respond. Unless fully informed, they will not know what you want. Remember, that without purposeful plans to respond, we all just react.  

Post quotes, mission statements, or goals where staff members can see them as they serve.

Keep your schedule in such a way that you have time to observe and respectfully redirect as conflicts arise.

Mentor by modeling the behavior you desire. Invite a trusted friend who knows you well to evaluate whether you are behaving the way you ask others to do.

Permit and even invite staff members to respectfully point out when you aren’t modeling what you want from them. Team does not allow for a dictator.

Relationships are what reveal the true inner self. Find times to take a break with staff members when you can just talk about anything. Learn how they approach difficult situations and coach them to develop new skills. Rules without relationship breed rebellion. Your influence on the staff will shape their influence on the campers.

The camp kitchen personnel have three opportunities a day to impact the lives of those at camp. By meeting their basic needs with genuine compassion, you may be the most influential of all.

Ruth Bennett is the Director of Camp Victory, an outreach of Victory Life Church in Cartwright, Okla. She has been involved in Christian camping since the 1980s and serves the cabinet of the Ozark Section of the Christian Camp and Conference Association. Reach her at ruth.bennett@victorylifechurch.com.