If you’re going to plan a writing retreat, you’ve got to get rid of the distractions.One of the biggest obstacles to good writing is that pesky need to eat. Here, our Head Chef (my incredibly talented wife, Renée White), enlightens you about the challenges faced by the cooks.
How to find cooks
You want to find friends that LOVE to cook. Hiring a personal chef was completely out of our budget, so we used our friends. They aren’t getting paid, so they have to want to be there to show off their cooking chops. They don’t have to be professionals, but having experience cooking for large groups of people is a plus. Luckily for our group, the two chefs were married to two of the writers.
Cooks will be working for at LEAST a solid 6-8 hours a day. Not light work, either. Chopping, peeling, cutting, frying, etc. By the end of the week, both Chris (the sous) and I were completely exhausted.
Cooks shouldn’t have to wash the dishes. There just isn’t enough energy in two people to do all of that. Alex made a schedule that put two people on dish duty after every meal. Most people ended up with three meals to clean up after, but I didn’t notice anyone complaining. They seemed more than happy to clean after having an amazing meal.
Dealing with the writers
Ask ahead of time if there are any food allergies. You’ll need to plan around those. Have chicken as an option if people are allergic to shellfish, and you have a shrimp dish planned. I downright ignored people when they said “I don’t like X.”
You won’t be able to accommodate everyone’s individual food preferences. We’ve created an environment of “you have to try it at least once. You’re here to try new things.” If anyone complained that they didn’t like something before even trying it, I’d say “just try it.” For instance, Brussel sprouts were the big one the first year, but after I cooked them in the oven and added bacon, we had converted people over to how delicious those little cabbages can be.
If anyone complains about the food in general, you can tell them to raid the fridge if they want. This isn’t a restaurant in which they get to return their plate because they don’t like it. Get the retreat organizer to talk to them if it’s a problem.
Plan for about $7 per person per meal. Three meals a day. Desserts every other day (or more if you’re adventurous.) Make some cheap meals, like Okonomiyaki, so you can splurge and get 16 oz. Steaks for everyone on another day.
Go price checking ahead of time. Take your list and write down the price of the item so you can add it all up and make sure you’re coming under budget. I found places liks Costco were good for meat and cheeses, but most other goods were cheaper at WalMart or Kroger. Specialty items, like shallots and beets, were cheapest at Fresh Market.
Save some money for other items once you get to the cabin. We kept a few hundred dollars in reserve which we needed for food items we had forgotten and things the cabin did not have, such as sufficient toilet paper, paper towels, garbage bags, dish soap, etc.
Creating a shopping list. Print off all your recipes, or write down what you’re making. You don’t want to leave any of this to guess work because nothing is more frustrating than being 2 hours into a meal and you realize you don’t have enough eggs. Go through and write down the ingredients on a shopping list as you come across them in your recipe. Add tick marks to an ingredient you have already listed (for instance, one mark for every dozen eggs. One mark for every stick of butter). My shopping list was literally 12 pages long. Then reorganize your list by section of the market. It is a pain in the beginning, but your legs will thank you when you’re dragging two carts filled to the brim, and you end up going back three aisles to get something you were just next to. (Also – bring a friend to help you push the carts.)
Get your dry goods early. Get your meat and dairy at the last possible moment. If you can shop for them near the cabin, then that’s the best option. Otherwise, the meat you bought at the beginning of the week for a dish at the end will have gone bad. I planned meals with the freshest meat at the beginning of the week and saved meals in which the meat could be frozen (like shrimp and ground meat) towards the end of the week. Sure, you COULD freeze the steaks, but dude. Don’t. Keep those babies fresh for the best flavor and texture.
The biggest problem we had the first year? People got burned out on too much rich food. This year was much better, because I made sure the three meals in a day complimented each other. For instance, if you have a tomato rich dish for lunch, you should go with something creamy for dinner. If you have a heavy breakfast, have a light lunch with bright flavors.
Breakfast: Lots of protein and fruit.
Lunch: Foods that are good for boosting energy. Not carb heavy or greasy, since it can make people sleepy.
Dinner: Go all out. This is a celebration meal for the end of another successful day of writing.
Free day mid week
Make an easy breakfast, like slow cooker oatmeal with bacon or a baked goods bar. This is the day for the cooks to rest and get out of the cabin (I totally had cabin fever by Wednesday). There will be plenty of leftovers from the previous meals, so if anyone wishes to stay in the cabin that day, that’s what they can eat for lunch. You can also stretch the leftovers to dinner if you like, or you can make a light meal. It’s up to you. Just remember that you still need enough energy for cook for 3 more days.
We found that it is easiest to create a central area that people can come through like a buffet and make their own plates. It will just take too much time and energy to make every one’s plates and bring it to them at the tables. Most kitchens in these cabins had an island that was good for this purpose. Plates at the beginning of the line, food in the middle, silverware at the end. Cut the dishes into single servings, or have plenty of serving spoons ready.
What to bring from home
These cabins have full kitchens, but they seem to be supplied with a mix of utensils and bakeware that was put together by a toddler. The knives will be dull, so bring your own. You can contact the Cabin company to bring more glasses and plates if need be. (For instance, our cabin had plates and bowls for 30 people, but only 5 spoons and 8 glasses….)
Take naps. Go to bed early. Get in the hot tub.