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May 15, 2023
Chris Nuttall-Smith Makes Meals Worth Camping Out For

Why not whip up a squid paella in the woods?

There was a time when Chris Nuttall-Smith, food writer and lifelong outdoorsman, ate just like everybody else at camp. As a college student hiking through the Rockies, he sustained himself on “PowerBars and Mr. Noodles”—standard backpacking fare. And it was fine. It was what people do! “Especially at that age, you’re not thinking that much about it,” he points out. Except, eventually, he was. 

He was on a whitewater paddling trip, eating endless powdered eggs, when it dawned on him: maybe it didn’t have to be like this. “Something’s not right about what I’m doing,” he remembers thinking. “I am in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen on the planet, and I am eating such disgusting food. How can I fix this?”

The answer is Cook It Wild, Nuttall-Smith’s guide to cooking and eating in the wilderness. It’s not just that you can make incredible meals in the wilderness, the critic and Top Chef Canada judge argues, laying out instructions for miso-butter radishes and sweet-tangy lemon ribs; it’s that perhaps you should. And he insists it’s highly doable for anyone, frontiersman or not. “People go out in the wilderness, and they’re really, really terrified that they’re one wrong decision away from becoming the Donner Party,” but for the vast majority of people, that just isn’t true. “The stakes are rarely as high as people think they are,” he promises. 

A few weeks ahead of the book’s release, I called Nuttall-Smith—who was indoors, at home in Toronto—to talk about the possibilities of camping food, the visceral joy of outdoor eating, and the perks of chilling out.

I don’t think it’s ever really occurred to me that camping food could be what you present it as in this book—like, delicious food-food, rather than dehydrated former food.
The food that you see on the racks when you walk into an outdoor store—that’s the food for, like, Everest base camp. That’s for if you’re trying to bag ten peaks in the Himalayas. It’s survival food. I’m not, for a second, judging people who do that. It’s easy; it’s dependable; it’s lightweight. And some of it is legitimately decent. But this industry is set up to service that kind of food—you look at the kind of stoves most people buy, and they’re made for boiling water. They’re really not great at doing other things. Well, you boil water for instant food. Everything is built around that, and I think people have been convinced that that’s how they need to cook and that eating well outside is this impossible thing. And it’s just not. If you’re paddling or hiking or something all day, to have something incredible that you can make in less than ten minutes that’s as delicious as you’d get in a restaurant—that is so rewarding. There’s just this real celebratory spirit that you just don’t get from a bag of dehydrated food.

In the book, you talk about having this “aha” moment, when you’re on a paddling trip and a friend of yours announces she’s making squid paella. I’m not a gourmet camping expert, but that was a lot for me to take in.
I think it’s a lot to take in for anybody, to be totally clear. So this friend, Sasha, she’s a former chef. She is brilliant. She’s just this natural cook, but she hadn’t really spent time camping before. So, you know, I’d said, “Guys, we should pack light. There are bears where we’re going.” And we had all sorts of portages—those are like trails between lakes where you need to carry your canoe and all your gear. And my friend Sasha brought a block of frozen squid. I remember she told me this, and I just looked at her, and my eyes were bugging out. I honestly thought, “This is going to be such a disaster.” Like, you can’t do that. And what I didn’t know is that she prepped everything—it was all ready to go—and she made us this absolutely spectacular paella. I’d been super anxious about these ingredients she’d brought, and in the end, they weren’t heavy and weren’t difficult to use. This meal was kind of life-changing in its deliciousness—and in how effortless it was for her. 

I should say that the paella in the book is one of the “Showstoppers.” They’re the most ambitious menus in the book—it’s not what everybody’s gonna make their first time out. But that meal made me realize what’s possible outdoors. That whole weekend, the food we had was incredible. We had premixed cocktails frozen in bottles—you’d shake them, and they were slushy, and then you’d pour them into glass, and they were perfect. And, you know, these friends of mine, they were all cooks—not outdoorsy—and they just pulled stuff out that took no work. They’d prepped the food; that’s what chefs do. My wheels started spinning that weekend. I started thinking, “Okay, what else is possible?” I’ve seen someone make what a lot of people think of as a super hard dish, and she made it effortless. So what about French toast? What about a simple bowl of noodles? What about amazing grilled cheese sandwiches that you prep in advance and keep in your cooler? It’s food that I think is as great as you can get in many restaurants, except you’re also sitting on a beautiful, sunny, warm rock on a lake with nobody around. And you’ve just come out of the water. So it’s the best of all worlds.

The big secret of the book is prep. That’s how you pull this off—you prep ahead of time.
It’s everything. There are very few recipes in the book that aren’t prep-ahead, and if they’re not, it’s because there is no prepping—it’s so easy that you don’t need to. More than half the recipes in this book take ten minutes or fewer at camp.

What makes eating outside so celebratory?
When you cook a great meal at home, you get this sense of satisfaction. But if you do that in the wild, there’s a sense that, “Okay, everything’s great in the world.” Part of it is like, “Hey, look what I did. I did this impossible thing that took me ten minutes and no work, and everybody’s so excited and happy.” It feels like you’ve managed to prove that the impossible is not even remotely impossible. And then part of it is just the sensory beauty of it. If you’re grilling a piece of meat, or making chapati on a fire outside, or eating this super simple, beautiful bowl of noodles—the smells, the warmth, the deliciousness, everything is amplified out there. There’s something about it that’s—I was going to say it’s physical, but it’s more than that. It just grabs you in a way that I think food doesn’t quite do when you’re in town.

So I’m wondering: Has the way you cook when you’re outside changed the way you cook when you’re inside?
It really has. I was kind of a famously messy cook for most of my life. It would be a disaster in the kitchen, and it was always because I did everything in real time. I’d go shopping in the morning and then start cooking. But part of developing this book and these recipes was realizing what you can do ahead and what makes sense to do ahead and how much easier it can make things, so now I’ll scan a recipe, or even look at standards that I’ve been making forever, and think, “Why am I doing all this at the last minute while I’ve got friends here or my kid is hungry?” So now I’ll break down cooking into what can be done ahead. I do more batch cooking now. 

When we moved into my house, I made a plated dinner for 18 people, and it was five courses, and there was seared fish. Like, it was stupid. I used to do dumb things. And it always turned out well, but inside you’re a wreck because you’re trying so hard, and you haven’t necessarily taken a moment to say, “How can I simplify this? How can I make this actually pleasurable for me?” And that’s something cooking outdoors has really changed—when you’re eating outside with friends or family and with people you love, and everybody’s relaxed, and you’re having this wonderful time, you realize what matters and what doesn’t. 

Your plating doesn’t have to be like a photo shoot for The Art of Plating. Everything doesn’t have to be beautiful; everything doesn’t have to be sizzling when you put it on the table. You can actually be part of the moment and have a conversation with people and not be super stressed out and worried what people think—it’s so natural when you’re camping. You’re more relaxed. Cooking in that condition really forces you to look at how you are at home. I was an uptight cook, to put it mildly, and now—I don’t know, my wife might argue with this—I’m fairly chill. 

Rachel Sugar

Rachel Sugar is a writer in New York.