How to Feed a Canyon


The big fundamentals of summertime food prep on the Frio

When dinner for eight is routinely multiplied to dinner for 800, and when the nearest grocery store for “spontaneous” purchases is 50.7 miles away down a windy river road, when a single recipe calls for 400 pounds of chicken and the menu ranges from hot dogs to sous-vide short ribs—nothing about meal preparation is simple. This is how we serve 88,000 individual meals over a 9-week stretch each summer to young campers, teenagers, college staff and families. Flexibility is key.

But “feeding a canyon” involves more than simply executing the dizzying logistics of large-scale food service in a remote location with multiple serving venues.

“Every single person we serve comes to us with needs,” says Laity Lodge Director of Operations Tim Blanks. “Nutritional needs, but also relational ones. A guest may tell us they need a gluten-free diet—but they also need time to relax, to build trust, to enjoy friendship.”

Blanks is on the same page as his colleagues Matt Huffman at Laity Lodge Family Camp and Ryan Hernandez at Laity Lodge Youth Camp. Food services is never just about the food: “As an organization, we operate with an expectation of wholeness,” says Blanks. “That means immersing ourselves in the God-made rhythms that insure a rich life, expressed through stewardship, hospitality, teamwork, unity, trust, flexibility, and learning.”

Divine Kitchen Rhythms

“God-made rhythms” in a chaotic kitchen? Yes, they insist.

“This job is so different from working in any other restaurant or organization,” says Hernandez, Kitchen Manager for LLYC. “The food service business in general is fast-paced, demanding, emotionally-charged, and all about the end result. With this job, in all our kitchens we exercise far more care and grace—with the food and with each other.”

That care may be reflected in a head cook’s short, pre-breakfast time of devotion and prayer with kitchen staff or in the selection of fresh ingredients over frozen ones—even when that choice adds another layer of complexity.

“We use fresh fruits and vegetables every chance we get,” says Huffman, Kitchen Manager for Family Camp. “If I’m serving yellow squash, it comes fresh from the store. We cut it ourselves. We roast it ourselves.”

Fresh is definitely the goal, but Huffman is not afraid of contingency plans. “If guests plow through all of our fresh pineapple at breakfast, we have cases of diced pineapple as a backup,” he admits. “It’s not as good, but it gets fruit on the salad bar for the guests.”

Meal Planning Essentials

Everyone on kitchen staff agrees that stewardship, flexibility, and creativity are essential tools in Canyon meal planning and preparation.

“One of the challenges for us,” adds Hernandez, “is that we’re in a remote canyon, far from any city. If we’re short an ingredient and cooking for hundreds, Leakey—or even Kerrville—won’t have enough of that ingredient to pull it off.”

“You gotta roll with the punches,” Huffman adds. “You order one thing, and sometimes what comes on the truck is different.”

When the truck delivered brussell sprouts instead of broccoli to Family Camp, Huffman jumped on the opportunity to try a recipe his staff had been contemplating: shaved brussell sprouts, sauteed with salt, pepper, olive oil, honey, and bacon. “Texans love bacon,” he says laughing.

No matter how much they plan, Blanks explains that sometimes they simply find themselves short of an ingredient. For example, “One day Ryan had chili on the menu, and no chili powder. We thought we had it—we didn’t. But we realized we did have some dried chili pods, so we improvised and made chili paste, flavoring the chili with it instead. And we’ve continued to do it that way because the result was actually better.”

Such challenges create opportunities for learning, and the discovery that “out of error and necessity comes creativity.”

Guest-inspired Cooking

Blanks, Hernandez, and Huffman plan and prepare all Canyon food with the guests in mind. “We remember who we’re cooking for,”says Hernandez.

“We cater to anything and everything,” adds Huffman. “Gluten free, dairy free, soy free, you name it, and we will make sure these meals are as good as what we are serving everyone else.” Because his son has Celiac disease, Huffman is especially passionate about serving people with food allergies. “I want the food they eat to look the same as what their friends are eating.”

They must also consider the skill level of his cooks when creating menus. Hernandez and Huffman relish working with young college students during camp. Hernandez says, “I love the teaching and learning process. Compared to other camp directors, I have the opportunity to teach life skills and technical skills. Our young cooks gain both relational and kitchen experience during the summer. When you’ve learned how to make carnitas for 400 people, the kitchen’s not going to scare you anymore.”

Building Trust at the Table

Working in a Canyon kitchen is an opportunity for spiritual growth as well as personal growth.

At many retreats, Huffman hands out a family name to each member of his crew, challenging them to pray for one family. Praying for guests helps them remember the purpose of the work.

“Suddenly the crew isn’t just coming in and doing dishes,” he explains. “They are doing the dishes for specific people, and those people have specific names.”

Everyone acknowledges that food is becoming more and more important to guests and has the power to bring people together. “The tables in the Lodge,” says Blanks, “are as important as the chairs in the Great Hall.” Or the benches at the Roundup pavilion. Or the canoes at each riverfront. Or the trail system. Or the dirt roads.

“All of us at The H. E. Butt Foundation set a table that allows God room to work in people’s lives,” Blanks explains. “We just happen to set a dining table.”

LLYC Red Chile Purée

LLYC Chef Ryan Hernandez

1 oz. Guajillo chiles, seeded and stemmed
1 oz. Pasilla chiles, seeded and stemmed
1 oz. Arbol chiles, seeded and stemmed
1 Medium yellow onion, large dice
3 Cloves garlic, smashed
2 Carrots, peeled and large dice
2 oz. Tomato paste
16 oz. Chicken stock
1/2 tsp. Cumin
1 tsp. Coriander
1 tsp. Oregano
1 tbsp. Kosher salt
1 tsp. Black pepper

Toast chiles at 300oF for 2-3 minutes or until they begin to smell. They will brighten in color slightly. Remove promptly. Bring 1 pint of water to a boil. Remove from heat, add chiles and soak for 5 minutes.

Drain and reserve chiles. In a 2-qt. saucepan, sweat onions, garlic, and carrots until slightly caramelized. Add tomato paste, chiles, chicken stock, and spices. Add water to cover vegetables as needed. Bring to a boil, reduce temperature to a simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat.

Blend to fine purée and strain through double fine mesh sieve. Adjust salt to taste. This purée can be used for chili, red sauce for enchiladas, a wet rub for pork loin, or you can use it as a base for molé. Will keep frozen for up to 3 months.