Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Person of the Week

Alex Welch: Food, Glorious Food


Though the COVID pandemic has wrought havoc on summer plans, summer day camp is still going strong at Camp Hazen YMCA in Chester, which means Food Services Director Alex Welch and his kitchen crew are busy feeding healthy meals to their young charges. Photo courtesy of Camp Hazen YMCA

Though the COVID pandemic has wrought havoc on summer plans, summer day camp is still going strong at Camp Hazen YMCA in Chester, which means Food Services Director Alex Welch and his kitchen crew are busy feeding healthy meals to their young charges. (Photo courtesy of Camp Hazen YMCA )

Now, here is some real news: Kids are not only eating Brussels sprouts, they are even asking for seconds—at least at Camp Hazen YMCA in Chester.

“Sometimes we run out,” says Alex Welch, the food service director at the camp.

Given that information, maybe you would like Alex’s recipe: fresh shaved Brussels sprouts coated in olive oil with salt, pepper, garlic, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.

“I roast them low and slow for two hours undisturbed so the top gets crispy. So delicious,” he says, adding, “Not the way my mother made them.”

Campers at Hazen abide by the no-thank-you-helping rule. Even if they don’t like something, they must try it, with a very small portion.

“Campers learn to eat and to like things they never expected,” Alex says.

This is an unusual year for Camp Hazen. Because of the pandemic, Governor Ned Lamont, by executive order, banned overnight camps, long a staple of Camp Hazen’s summer program. Day camps, however, are permitted. Camp Hazen has approximately 200 campers for each day camp session, according to Executive Director Denise Learned.

Counselors, following guidelines from the state of Connecticut’s Office of Early Childhood, are wearing masks when they are with campers; campers, though encouraged to wear masks, do not have to.

Alex, who grew up in Colorado, has had varied roles at Camp Hazen. He started as a counselor some 12 years ago, progressing to both a village director and a teen director before becoming a sous chef. This is his third year as food director.

After high school, he spent a year at culinary school but at that time decided against being a traditional chef. Rather, a longtime boy scout, he realized what he loved was working with young people. That was the reason he first applied for a job at Camp Hazen.

One of the things he particularly enjoys in more than a decade at Hazen is seeing youngsters returning year after year.

“There are so many kids I know; I’ve seen them grow up,” he says.

Day camp means instead of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Alex’s main focus is on lunch. Campers pick up their meals the big dining hall in the groups of 8 to 10 that they spend the day with. Only one group enters the dining room at a time, and then all take the meal to a picnic table outside to eat.

Brussels sprouts may not have been a predictable favorite, but some things are: pizza, chicken tenders, macaroni and cheese. Alex says he and his sous chef can flip 160 burgers on the grill in less than an hour.

“Depends a bit on how the wind is blowing,” he admits.

The most popular desert is Camp Hazen’s home-baked chocolate chip cookies. The kitchen makes some 500 a week.

“The recipe has been passed down from chef to chef for as long as anyone can remember,” Alex says.

Cookouts often end with the desert that is the iconic emblem of camp eating: s’mores, the time-tested favorite that combines graham crackers, chocolate, and toasted marshmallows.

Sometimes food preferences can be confusing. At the end of every session, campers fill out a questionnaire that includes listing what foods they like.

“What half the kids say is their favorite, the other half says is their least favorite,” Alex says.

Quantity can be as important as quality in camp food. Alex figures on 1.5 portions for each person. That, he notes, is a recognition of the teenage appetite. Campers, both male and female, range from elementary schoolers to 10th graders.

“Growing boys can eat,” he says.

And making large amounts of food demands not only culinary skill, but muscle. Alex stirs vats of pasta with a utensil he describes as looking like a canoe paddle.

In planning meals, Alex follows federal Department of Agriculture guidelines for healthy eating at choosemyplate.gov. Fresh fruits and vegetables are a regular part of meals and in purchasing, Alex selects the healthiest options. For chicken tenders, for instance, he looks for the products with five or fewer ingredients and he never buys foods like pre-cooked hamburgers.

There is one food long associated with childhood eating that does not appear on a Camp Hazen menu, peanut butter. For over a decade, in response to a growing emphasis on food allergies, Hazen has been nut-free.

For the last six years, Alex has been a part of the permanent staff of Camp Hazen. There is work for him throughout the year, including special programs, retreats, and meetings using camp facilities.

For five years, he lived at Hazen year-round.

“I’ve made some of my best friends at camp,” he says.

This year Alex has moved to Middletown but is still very much part of the Chester community. He has joined Chester Rotary Club, which he describes as “awesome.” He particularly likes that it combines community service with social activities.

In his own tastes, Alex has become a real New Englander. If he had a choice of a meal, he says he would opt for a local favorite: lobster roll. And maybe for him, that lobster roll would come with a side of Brussels sprouts.

For more information on Camp Hazen, visit camphazenymca.org.

Rita Christopher is the Senior Correspondent for Zip06. Email Rita at news@shorepublishing.com.

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