Spirit of the Harvest: Oil Camp Cooking

January 20, 2010

Chef: 'Working in the camps is not a job for idlers'

When we first met Marlene Hale, a.k.a. Chef Maluh, this classically trained Athabascan chef, who has cooked in the finest kitchens in Budapest and at the Savoy Hotel in London, was catering and teaching cooking classes in Vancouver. When we spoke recently, I was so fascinated by what she has been doing since then that I've asked her to tell you about it.

"Growing up in Smithers, British Columbia, I thought I knew about bone-chilling winter temperatures. So, when an opportunity arose to work as a chef in an oil camp in northern British Columbia, about 30 kilometers from the Yukon border, I was intrigued," she says. "In this economy, a growing number of chefs are drawn to good-paying jobs at the oil camps. Working in the camps is not a job for idlers; the hours are long and the work is hard. Oil workers, the chefs and other support staff work in shifts of three weeks on, one week off. You need a strong work ethic, a strong back, and an adaptable nature to rise to the challenge of cooking in this remote wilderness.

Getting there is an adventure

"Getting to camp is an adventure in itself," she continues. "To begin, there is a long (365-mile) drive from Edmonton (Alberta) to Dawson Creek, British Columbia. Just out of Dawson Creek, the Alaska Highway crosses the Peace River and passes through Fort St. John, in the heart of British Columbia's far-north ranch country. The highway continues north, parallel to the Rockies. First the ranches thin, then the forests thin. At Fort Nelson, the Alaska Highway turns west, narrows and winds into the Rockies. There can be nothing more beautiful than this long stretch of highway. You often see wild animals: deer, moose, lynx, cougars, bobcats, wolves and even grizzly bears.

"There are two kinds of oil camps: rig camps and 'open' camps. Open camps, like the one where I worked, provide food and lodging for the people working on the rigs, but are also open to the other travelers. The accommodations are comfortable, and serving good and plentiful food is a top priority. When it is minus 52 degrees (Fahrenheit) outside, men and women who work in cold and rough conditions crave comfort food, and we aim to satisfy with eggs, bacon, sausage, and pancakes with maple syrup. From a health-conscious cook's point of view, however, it was rewarding for me to add options like homemade granola and fruit smoothies to the breakfast menu and find that they were well received.

"Though the chefs are supplied with top-quality ingredients, the grocery store is not just around the corner. You learn to adjust your recipes to use ingredients that are trucked in weekly. Since we may be feeding from 16 to 800 people in the open camps, menus must be kept simple.

'I enjoy serving traditional First Nations foods'

"I enjoy serving traditional First Nations foods like salmon, and wild Alaska salmon with mustard glaze was a popular dinner entree at the camp. Farmers in Alberta produce 45,000 metric tons of mustard seed every year. North American Natives dry the seed and use it medicinally and in cooking. Mustard seed stimulates blood flow and helps to improve circulation and warm the skin, easing painful muscles and sore joints. As a stimulant, it helps to improve digestion and metabolize fat.

"The mustard sauce that follows is sharp and packs a lot of heat, which I like; I use it as a rub before roasting and grilling. You can adjust it to complement recipes for wild game by adding rosemary and preserves. I add lemon to make the sauce for fish."

Makes: 6 servings

Grilled Wild Salmon with Mustard Glaze, Bitter Greens and Charred Red Onion


For the Alberta Mustard Sauce:
1/4 cup yellow mustard seed
1/3 cup cold white wine or water
3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
2 to 4 tablespoons maple syrup
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
Sea salt
1 1/2 tablespoons each chopped fresh thyme and dill


Use a spice grinder to grind mustard seed. In a blender or food processor, combine all ingredients except salt and herbs. Blend until smooth, stopping frequently to scrape the container. Place mixture in a clean glass jar, cover tightly, and refrigerate at least two days to blend the flavors. Season to taste with salt and fold in herbs. Makes about 3/4 cup.


For the salmon:
6 5-ounce wild salmon fillets, skin and pin bones removed
Sea salt
1/4 cup Alberta Mustard Sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil


Season fillets on both sides with salt and pepper and let sit in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Pat them dry with paper towels. Brush with mustard sauce, cover and refrigerate for 4 hours. Reserve remaining mustard sauce. Just before grilling, wipe off the mustard with a paper towel and rub salmon with 1 tablespoon oil.
Fire up the grill; just before grilling, brush grill with remaining olive oil. Grill salmon, flesh side down, for 3 to 4 minutes. Turn salmon over and brush generously with reserved mustard sauce. Continue to grill, about 3 to 4 minutes, until cooked through. Serve salmon on a bed of the greens and charred onions.


For the greens and onions:
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
3 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Sea salt and pepper
1 large red onion, halved and sliced 1/3-inch thick
3/4 pound bitter greens such as escarole, frisee or a combination


In a large bowl, whisk together shallot, vinegar, mustard, 3 tablespoons oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Toss onion with remaining tablespoon oil and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Grill onion in grill basket, covered, stirring occasionally, until charred and tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Just before serving, toss greens and onion with dressing and arrange on warm plates.

Beverly Cox is the food editor of Native Peoples Magazine and a former food editor and director of food styling for Cook's Magazine. She holds a Grand Diplome from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and apprenticed with Gaston LeNotre.

Beverly has written 13 cookbooks, including Spirit of the Harvest, North American Indian Cooking, winner of the James Beard and IACP cookbook awards in 1992, and Spirit of the West, Cooking from Ranch House and Range, winner of a Julia Child award in 1997, and Spirit of the Earth, Native Cooking from Latin America, an IACP cookbook award finalist in 2002, all co-authored with food photographer Martin Jacobs. Their most recent book is Eating Cuban, 120 Authentic Recipes from the Streets of Havana to American Shores.

Beverly and her husband, Gordon Black, an architect turned rancher, live on the historic Eagle Rock Ranch in Northern Colorado where her great grandfather homesteaded in 1872. Beverly teaches hands-on cooking classes for small groups who want to combine cooking with the experience of visiting a working cattle ranch.

You can contact Beverly at BeverlyCox@TankaBar.com

For more information about Beverly's cookbooks featuring Native American recipes:

Body, Mind and Spirit: Native Cooking of the Americas

Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking

Spirit of the Earth: Native Cooking from Latin America

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