Tawonga going gourmet with Ets-Hokins tasty touch

Crême brulée for 400? Roasted chicken stuffed with Meyer lemons? Homemade ravioli?

Standard camp chow, this isn't.

Come this summer, though, such elegant-sounding fare may be the offering du jour for some 250 kids and 150 staffers at Camp Tawonga.

Rebecca Ets-Hokin, a noted cooking teacher and food writer, will be running the kitchen at the Jewish camp near Yosemite.

"It's not exactly a resume-builder, I'll admit that," quipped Ets-Hokin, who writes a regular cooking column for the Jewish Bulletin. Instead, the camp gig sounded like fun and "something new to try."

And no, she doesn't plan to do much slinging of powdered eggs and frozen hash browns.

"I don't believe in feeding kids processed foods," said Ets-Hokin, who will supervise a kitchen staff of 20 and serve three kosher-style meals and three snacks daily for hundreds of hungry diners.

"I think with good ingredients, you can't really go wrong," said Ets-Hokin, who estimates that on any given Shabbat, she'll need 60 roasted chickens, 35 challahs and 175 pounds of mashed potatoes.

The 41-year-old Tiburon resident says the job will be a first in a culinary career that spans 20 years. Her credentials include stints cooking at restaurants in Paris, as a caterer, as director of the HomeChef Cooking Schools and Kitchen Stores founded by her mother, Judith, and as founding instructor of a consumer-based cooking school.

"I've never run an industrial kitchen at a residential facility," admitted Ets-Hokin, who will make her camp debut feeding 350 people at Tawonga's family camp over the Memorial Day weekend.

Barbara Moser, a San Francisco resident with two sons heading off to Tawonga for the first time this summer, was ready to sign up for kids' camp herself. "My boys are going to be so happy," said Moser, who has taken several cooking classes taught by Ets-Hokin at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

While all four sessions of children's camp are already booked, Tawonga still has openings for its six family camp weekends that begin on Aug. 22.

Ets-Hokin says campers and staff can look forward to a continued tradition of fine meals at Tawonga.

"The motto is: 'Food is king,'" she said, noting that it has already been fulfilled by her predecessor. Former food service manager Nina Kaufman left that post to lead a teen trip this summer to El Salvador.

"We've always been known as a camp that had exceptionally good food," said Ken Kramarz, Tawonga's executive director. Hiring Ets-Hokin is "a big step forward on a path we were already on."

The culinary coup that landed Ets-Hokin started with small talk at a recent charity luncheon.

Chatting with Ets-Hokin, Tawonga's associate director, Ann Gonski, mentioned the opening in the camp kitchen and asked, "Do you want to do it?"

The response was: "Sure. But what about my kids?"

Gonski said Ets-Hokin's three children, ages, 4, 7 and 11, were welcome to spend the summer at camp, too.

"It's a fabulous opportunity for our family to be at camp all summer long," said Ets-Hokin, who was a Tawonga camper herself as a child and has spent several one-week sessions there while her husband, Joe Elson, served as the camp's doctor. In addition, oldest daughter Violet has been to Tawonga twice. Elson will join the family on the weekends.

Ets-Hokins admits that she'll be putting in plenty of long hours at camp. A typical day starts with breakfast prep at 6 a.m. and ends with a staff snack at 10 p.m. Her job also includes managing the camp laundry. Under her contract, she'll get two days off every three weeks.

Mentioning her summer job to friends, Ets-Hokin said, "I get two reactions:

"One is, 'Isn't that great for the kids?' The other is, 'It sounds like a nightmare.'

"In a sense," she said, "it's a perfect job for people with little kids."