How to Cook Like a Chef in the Woods

We spoke to chef Marcus Monteiro of Toronto’s Brassaii about the secret to eating well in the great outdoors.
June 23, 2016, 7:00pm
Photo via Flickr user Banzai Hiroaki

I grew up camping in Bobcaygeon in Ontario. It's something I did throughout my entire childhood, and it's great because you can shut your mind off for a little while. It lets you focus on nature and eating and not the fast-paced environment of a kitchen and constantly having to be on. But you also have to be really well prepared for all kinds of situations.

Foresight Plan ahead and make your menu. Spend the extra time to go over the possibilities that might create complications in what you're cooking, or problems you might run into, like keeping your food cold so it doesn't go bad on you. You always need to have backup ice—the last thing you want is all your food to spoil because then you're really up the creek, if you'll pardon the pun. It's hard to have too much ice; I've never left a campsite with extra ice. Also, you have to be ready for any weather. If your sole goal is to grill food over the fire and it rains all of a sudden, then you'll get extremely hungry.


Photo via Flickr user eeems

The Right Tools Make sure you bring the right utensils. Some people bring an old, sticky barbecue or hibachi grill, or the wrong tongs or knife. You also want a good grill brush to make sure grates are clean. If you don't think about stuff like that, you run into problems really easily. Setting yourself up for success is usually the best way to approach camping. As long as you have the tools you need to cook good food, you'll probably be happy with the outcome.


Photo via Flickr user Szymon Kochański

For cooking, a cast iron skillet is ideal. Cast iron has a good control of heat. It's a thick-bottomed pan, so when you bring it up to temperature it will hold the heat a lot longer. It gives you a really nice sear. We use them in the kitchen when we cook our large rib-eye. Also, the handle isn't plastic so you can put it right on the grill or in the campfire. You really have to let the fire get hot enough so that you can sear the meat, otherwise it's just going to stick.

Photo via Flickr user Michael Brooks

Photo via Flickr user Michael Brooks

The Right Ingredients I like to keep it as simple as possible, like a good, solid protein. A steak, a piece of chicken, or ribs is usually what I do. As far as vegetables go, I take button or cremini mushrooms, sauté them and throw some butter in there. Mushrooms, corn, and potatoes are great for camping because they stay at room temperature for a long time, they have a long life, and when it comes to cooking them it's fairly easy. Also they go really well with steaks, so it's a good fit for camping, and you don't even need utensils to eat corn. If you can bring butter, it's a big plus, but you can also get away with just using oil, too. Finally, If you're camping with someone, have them make some sides in advance. The more options the better, like a potato salad or a watermelon salad, the more people will be happy.


Photo via Flickr user The Wanderpath

Drinks In the summer, when it comes to drinks, I'm big on just something really cold or refreshing. If I'm not planning on getting in the vehicle anytime soon, I go for craft beers usually. I'm a big fan of Muskoka IPA, it's my go-to when I go anywhere.

One of those will last you like an hour-and-a-half, because it's got a stronger taste to it, as opposed to light beers, where you just drink a bunch and all of a sudden half of your food is burned and you don't know why. Of course, you have to be practical, but it's also about personal preferences and you don't want to get too serious about pairings, like, "I think this beer goes well with this steak."


Photo via Flickr user Kevin Galens

The Most Important Meal of the Day For breakfast, make more for dinner. You can use the leftovers and just throw them in the cast iron pan the next day. So you have your leftover mushrooms, onions, or whatever vegetables you have from dinner, and then crack a bunch of eggs in and cook it over a lower fire, and let that go for like 15 to 20 minutes and you've got a campsite frittata. Leftovers all the way!

Influence The food at Brassaii is more mediterranean and slightly upscale casual dining. So it's pretty far from camping food, but a lot of it is rustic. For example, one of our dishes is a huge rib-eye and on the plate we truss rosemary, thyme, and bay leaf. When we finish the steak we baste it in butter and that rosemary bundle and then we take off the herb and light it on fire. When it's smoking like that, it pretty much reenacts that whole campfire smell and burning. It brings you back to the rawness of that piece of meat and the quality of the cut you're serving.

Marcus Monteiro is the executive chef at Toronto's Brassaii.

As told to Nick Rose.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.