Food isn’t generally high on the list of fond memories when it comes to summer camp, but the delights emanating from the kosher kitchen at Ramah seem to have left an impression.
There was plenty of bug juice to go around — but only as an ingredient in a martini. And while you could see and smell the Rocky Mountain toast cooking to a bronzed crispiness, only three people got to enjoy eating it.
So what were these camp staples doing in the auditorium of Adath Israel in Merion Station on March 17? They were part of “Top Chef Ramah,” an event to raise funds for scholarships for the Conservative movement’s overnight camp in the Poconos, its day camp on the Mandell Education Campus in Melrose Park, and the weeklong special needs Tikvah program at its overnight camp in the Poconos town of Lakewood.
Cooking up the Poconos version of Toad in the Hole (or, less colorfully, egg fried in bread) for an audience of more than 200 alumni, friends and family of Camp Ramah were five veterans of the camp’s kitchens and dining halls. As part of the evening’s entertainment, three two-person teams competed against each other in two events patterned after the hit Bravo cooking competition series, Top Chef, complete with announcers, judges, DJ’s and a professional video crew to document the chef’s every slice and sizzle.
Food isn’t generally high on the list of fond memories when it comes to summer camp, but the food emanating from the kosher kitchen at Ramah over the years seems to have left an impression. The first event was a quickfire competition, from preparation to plate in 15 minutes or less. The teams matched up the camp’s current executive chef, Tim Witcher, and Ramah parent (a food and Jewish communal professional) Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer; former Ramah breakfast/lunch cook (and current development production chef at Taylor Farms) Max Sugarman and former Ramah cook (and current CPA/therapist) Michael Goldberg; and longtime former Ramah cook (and current co-owner of Emes Editions Limited: The Art of Mordechai Rosenstein) Barry Magen, and former Ramah cook (and current culinary arts instructor at Garfield Park Academy) Stuart Davis.
They had to create their own version of Rocky Mountain toast. The three judges, after thoroughly enjoying their breakfast for dinner, declared Witcher and Kaplan-Mayer’s version —deconstructed into a sort of panzanella, complete with oozing yolk — to be the winner.
Witcher, who is a culinary instructor at New Jersey’s Burlington County Institute of Technology the other nine months of the year, is entering his fifth year as executive chef at Ramah. Before coming to the camp, though, “I had never been to a camp — ever. I didn’t even know if they had indoor plumbing,” he recalls. “But they made us feel like family as soon as we got there.”
Renowned at camp for his slow-cooked boneless barbecue ribs, Witcher understands that his kitchen provides more than just fuel to the roughly 350 overnight campers each day.
“For a lot of the kids, this is their first time away from home. Food is comfort, so we do our best to make sure they look forward to the meals.”
Lynn Horn, the event co-chair who helped cook up the event, was a rarity among the night’s attendees: She neither attended nor worked at Ramah. But after her three sons began going there, she was quick to realize how special the institution was. “My kids made lifelong friendships there,” says the Elkins Park resident. “Two are on staff now, and the youngest one is trying to get on staff. I felt like what they got from Ramah was so instrumental in their development that I wanted to give back.”
Throughout the course of the evening, two themes — relationships that last a lifetime, and the desire to give back to the camp community — resonated. The alumni, staff and families are so interconnected that playing the Ramah version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon would require changing the rule to no more than two degrees.
You couldn’t throw a mushroom strudel without hitting someone like Ben Landsburg, a Cherry Hill, N.J., resident who describes himself as “Ramah, 1997-2012, potentially 2013. I was a camper, then a counselor, then Rosh Edah,” or age group leader. His involvement with the camp this year is still up in the air because he is getting married this summer — at Ramah, to his fiancee, whom he met there. His camp genealogy would be echoed repeatedly by Ramah alums.
“My parents met there, all my brothers went there — it’s a huge part of my life,” said the 25-year-old, who also fondly recalls the food.
“When I used to write home as a camper,” he says, the first thing I would write is, ‘Hey, Mom and Dad, the food here is the best part!’ ”
Rabbi Joel Seltzer gets people like Landsburg, partly because he is like Landsburg and countless others for whom the Ramah experience has become part of the fabric of their lives.
Seltzer, who is the new director of the camp, also was a camper, staff member and met his wife there. While he is as steeped in the camp’s history as anyone, Seltzer is unapologetically focused on the camp’s future. “The best years of the camp can’t be 1973 or 1983 or 1993,” he emphasizes. “I have to build the best years of camp for 2023.”
The chefs, too, are looking ahead. Witcher, whose partnership with Kaplan-Mayer, also won the second challenge of the evening, a “mystery box” containing salmon, chickpeas, tangerines and marshmallow fluff, with a surprise ingredient — barbecue-flavored bissli, the ubiquitous Israeli snack food at Ramah. While their winning creation of matzah-bissli crusted salmon with fluff beurre blanc, butter-warmed chickpeas and an arugula salad with tangerine-fluff vinaigrette would definitely be too labor intensive to make it into the dining hall rotation, Witcher says that he is planning to recreate his version of Rocky Mountain toast for staff celebrations.
He should make sure to keep his competitive skills finely honed: The event was such a big hit that Seltzer says a Top Chef Ramah with counselors and campers is definitely “something that might happen at camp — minus all of the A/V equipment, of course.”