DENMARK — Jonathan St. Laurent was just getting ready to head into the kitchen at Camp Walden to make six gallons of bechamel sauce for the next day’s macaroni and cheese when the quintessential little red-haired girl walked by.

Sporting a pair of ponytails, she was carrying a small birthday cake covered with sprinkles through the camp’s dining room and back to her cabin.

“Hey, is it your birthday?” St. Laurent called out. “Happy birthday!”

He chuckled and commented a bit skeptically: “There’s a lot of birthdays right now.” Forgive St. Laurent’s suspicions, but when every girl in camp gets not one, but two birthday cakes – one at dinner and a smaller one to share with her cabin mates – it’s easy to question the coincidence of so many birthdays falling within a few short summer weeks.

You may remember St. Laurent, known to his friends as Jonny, as the force behind Uncle Billy’s Southside Bar-B-Que in South Portland – the area’s first real Southern-style barbecue restaurant – and several other barbecue joints in Greater Portland. If you’ve ever wondered what happened to him … well, here he is, cooking for about 250 girls, ages 8 to 15, on the shores of Sand Pond.

For the past three years, St. Laurent, 64, has been the camp chef at Walden, about an hour outside of Portland. The camp is many a little girl’s dream – a place to swim, canoe, water ski, play tennis, ride horses, and gather around a bonfire to sing and make s’mores.


Food has become a more important part of summer camp life, particularly in the past five to 10 years. Many camps now have their own chefs and bakers, and some even have vegetable gardens that campers help tend. (St. Laurent has a small herb garden.) This increased interest in food and nutrition is reflected on camp websites and in marketing materials, and echoes what is going on in the culture, says Lucy J. Norvell of the New England chapter of the American Camp Association.

“Children are growing up today in a very foodie culture,” she said. “They’re watching food prepared on some of these televisions shows, and they even have (their own) cooking classes, so children themselves know more about food.”

It’s hard at first to wrap your head around the idea of St. Laurent in this environment. Over the years he has worked in the kitchens of Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth, the Samoset resort in Rockland, and the legendary Alberta’s Cafe in Portland. He is still best remembered for Uncle Billy’s, which he opened in 1989 next door to the rough-and-tumble Griffin Club in South Portland, where there was a boxing ring in the basement, code enforcement officers were friendly, and testosterone-fueled bar fights were practically a nightly occurrence. The line between the two establishments was, at times, blurry.

But Uncle Billy’s was the real deal. St. Laurent can still recite from memory a quarter-century-old Maine Sunday Telegram review: “Never have I had barbecue like this. Not in Texas, not in Memphis, not in my dreams.”

A succession of other, less edgy barbecue restaurants followed in Portland and Yarmouth, but they never took off for one reason or another – a difficult business partner, a kitchen fire, and customers who still yearned for the original Uncle Billy’s and complained that, in his new places, the tableware matched.

Now the chef is a caterer and restaurant consultant for most of the year. At the summer camp, his hours are filled with making three kinds of meatballs (vegetarian; gluten-free, egg-free and dairy-free; and “normal”), baking 175 homemade cookies a day, experimenting with ways to get girls to eat eggs, and generally trying to please persnickety palates.


“Sometimes I say to myself, is this what you want to do?” St. Laurent said. “But you know what? I love the kids. And it’s only three months a year.”


The kitchen at Camp Walden is bigger than some restaurant kitchens. The walk-in freezers have cool (no pun intended) wooden doors and ancient Yale locks that look as if they are from another century – and they are. There’s an enormous mixer on the floor “older than me,” St. Laurent says, that still works and that the kitchen staff has named “Big Bertha.”

St. Laurent sports a short-sleeved chef’s coat and plaid shorts. Instead of a hair net, he wears a baseball cap backwards, like a teenager.

As St. Laurent starts the bechamel, his staff chops, cleans and bakes. Some are making Rice Krispie treats, tonight’s dessert. The baker, whom St. Laurent can’t seem to praise enough, is making birthday cakes as fast as she can. (There are seven birthdays over the next two days.)

The bechamel will be mixed with 60 pounds of cooked macaroni, and “they’ll eat it all.” The recipe is the same one St. Laurent used at Uncle Billy’s.


St. Laurent has updated the summer camp menu, most recently adding quinoa, tabouleh and breakfast smoothies. He makes meat-free meals a couple of times a week; other nights he’ll sear flank steak on the flat top and serve it with stir-fried vegetables. But kids are kids, and their favorites are still childhood staples like tater tots and chicken fingers, which, St. Laurent says, inspire “a feeding frenzy. It’s scary.”

His biggest challenge is keeping up with special diets. “One day they’ll all line up and all of a sudden everybody’s a vegetarian, and it happened overnight,” St. Laurent said. “And I’ve seen the same thing with the gluten-free.”

Around 3:30 p.m., the screen doors thwack and girls in swimsuits, wrapped in towels, start trickling into the dining room, searching for a snack.

Some of the girls pause to give their reviews of St. Laurent’s food. A 15-year-old from New York who has been coming here for seven years says she remembers when they got dessert after both lunch and dinner, and likes the healthier options. Most say they like the Friday night mac-and-cheese, except for an 11-year-old from Boston who says she finds it “over cheesed.” The meatballs get several thumbs up.

The temperature has climbed to 88 degrees, and fans are buzzing in the dining room. Later in the afternoon, thunderstorms sweep through the piney woods and unleash a torrent of rain that turns the air muggy.

Dinner tonight will be several 10-pound bags of cavatappi pasta tossed with pesto, cottage and ricotta cheese, roasted red peppers and tomatoes and Marconi extra-virgin olive oil. “We buy good olive oil,” St. Laurent said. “Even though it’s kids, I consider olive oil a food group.”


Trays of broccoli roasted with a little garlic and olive oil, the way the girls like it, will be the side vegetable.

An old-fashioned dinner bell rings the kids into supper at 6 p.m.

The girls find their assigned table and stand behind their chairs. One table bursts into song, and the rest of the room soon joins in. There are lots of songs, including one that thanks St. Laurent and his staff for the meal they are about to enjoy: “Hooray for the kitchen crew. Thank you for the work you do…”

Finally, chairs scrape on the wooden floor, and they sit down and dig in.


If only breakfast were as easy. The girls, for some reason, will not eat eggs. St. Laurent has tried everything – poached, fried, scrambled, toad-in-the-hole, breakfast burritos.


“But French toast, sweet stuff – they have a big sweet tooth,” St. Laurent said.

Every Sunday morning, that sweet tooth is satisfied with schnecken, a buttery, sugary bun that is kind of like a cinnamon roll with raisins (but no more nuts, a nod to modern allergies). Scores of grown women, some in their 70s, called the camp in anticipation of its 100th anniversary festivities to inquire if schnecken would be served.

Parents weekend was followed by two days’ worth of anniversary events and 600-700 extra mouths to feed. It meant making 1,300 schnecken. The camp brought in food trucks to help, and the baker, Laura Brandstetter, made a big cake.

“These past few days have been really, really beating us all up,” St. Laurent said. “Yesterday I went to a reflexologist and got a foot massage. I went to visit my kids. I was pushing my grandchildren on the swing set, and they were like ‘Grampy, what’s wrong with you?’ ”

St. Laurent lives at the camp, in a cabin by the lake. He reads when he’s not too tired, goes fishing for small-mouth bass and crappies when he’s got the time, goes to sleep to the sound of loons. On Saturday nights, if he’s free, he goes to the Denmark Arts Center to hear a string quartet.

Working at the camp has its advantages, St. Laurent says. He doesn’t have the headache of equipment breaking during a busy restaurant service, and “you’re guaranteed to get paid.”


“You get a day off. Sort of.”

When Uncle Billy’s Resto-Bar on Congress Street closed in 2007, St. Laurent said he was done with restaurants. His catering had always been more successful anyway. (He still owns a rotisserie that can fit a 1,200-pound steer.) He spends winters in Florida, and daydreams about possibilities.

“A food truck down in Florida would be nice,” he said. “With some lobster rolls.”

Summers, however, will remain where the girls are.


Comments are no longer available on this story