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Out Cooking It: Mama Mia

By: Kelsey Boyte

First Descents’ program chefs are responsible for preparing nutritious, delicious meals for up to 20 participants a day, three times a day — four if you count dessert. It’s a stunning challenge that our chefs make look like a cake walk. Lead chefs build menus that can support activity-packed FD days at the beach, up a rock or on the river, while incorporating a dizzying array of dietary restrictions and specialized diets. They are our program superheroes.

We sat down with Mia Lewis (aka Vegetti, Chef Uber, or Mama Mia), lead chef and beam of light to 26FD programs since 2013, to reminisce on her favorite program memories and share a favorite fall recipe.

WHEN WAS YOUR FIRST FD CAMP/PROGRAM AND WHAT WAS ONE MEMORY THAT HOOKED YOU TO THE FD TRIBE?

My first FD program was in 2013 — Hood River, Ore. One of many memories from that first programwas standing on a bridge trying to get the courage to jump in and just as fear tried to set in, the entire FD crew, outfitters and campers cheered me on. As I came out of the water I realized that I found a community of people who were unstoppable and I wanted to be a part of that.

HOW DO YOU PLAN FOR A PROGRAM? WHAT DOES IT REALLY TAKE TO FEED A HOUSE OF CAMPERS?

I had an advantage coming into a lead chef role with First Descents. Having raised five kids, I have had many years of experience planning and preparing meals for my large family. Planning ahead is so important when feeding a houseful of campers, volunteers and staff. Although each location that we cook in is very different, so being flexible and being able to improvise is just as important.

I start menu planning in the off-season, testing and trying different recipes that align with the FD food mission, as well as my personal mission: healthy, affordable and able to make at home so campers go home with some cooking ideas and recipes.

In terms of the actual logistics of shopping and kitchen tools — I try to stay as organized as possible! I created a template after my first program that helps me keep track of my shopping lists based on the menu. The more ingredients I can use in multiple recipes, the better it is to save on costs. In some more rural locations, I order dry goods and staple products online from a wholesale market and have them delivered. When I can, I try to drive to my programs so I can bring my favorite kitchen tools with me like my VitaMix, Veggetti, etc. I have been known to get questioned by TSA about my VitaMix.

It takes patience, flexibility and an open mind to be a chef cooking for so many different people with different food allergies and food preferences. I don’t necessarily see them as challenges; I see different food preferences and allergies as an opportunity to open people’s eyes to the many recipes that can be made using alternative ingredients.

WHAT DOES FEEDING PEOPLE MEAN TO YOU?

Feeding people for me is my expression of love. Every meal is a set intention to nourish the soul and spirit. I also love seeing people eat food they have never tried, and liking it! I love when participants get back home and send me messages about how they have made changes in their cooking or their diets after coming to an FD program. I love talking to people about food and educating them on all the amazing ways food can fuel us. But I find my greatest joy is being a part of something greater than all of us. FD magic is real and it can’t be described in words; it can only be experienced.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE PROGRAM MEMORY?

It is so hard to pick just one! There have been so many great and funny moments in the kitchen surrounded by great sous chefs and volunteers. I will say that one of my fondest memories, though, is from a climbing program in the Adirondacks this summer when a bunch of the participants came into the kitchen on the last day while I was busy making homemade pizzas for dinner. They turned up the music, rolled up their sleeves and started making the pizzas with me. I loved being surrounded by their energy and I loved that the kitchen brought us all together.

MONTANA’S SALAD

1 beet, peeled, sliced and steamed until tender

2 cups butternut squash, peeled, cut into 1/2-dice and steamed until tender

1 orange, peeled and sliced

Handful of blueberries

1/4 cup fresh mint, cut into chiffonade (ribbon-like strips)

Squeeze of lemon

2 tsp olive oil

1 tsp honey

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup farro

Inspired by Katie “Montana” Mazurek. Mia chef ’d at Montana’s FD1 program in the Adirondacks. Montana was agnostic to what a week of clean eating had in store — she even brought her own jar of Skippy peanut butter just in case. This salad packed with color, flavor and phytonutrients made Montana a believer that clean eating is good eating.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add farro and cook until al dente — approximately 25 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water. Set aside. In a large mixing bowl, combine cooked squash and beets. Add orange, mint, honey, a drizzle of olive oil, and salt and pepper. Toss to combine, then add farro. Garnish with blueberries and additional mint.

Serve immediately.

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