MALETTE LAKE, Ont. — If Wolfgang Puck had been on last week’s fly-in fishing trip to northwestern Ontario, he might have gotten a hip check from Peter Howard along with a request to stay out of the kitchen.
When the camp chef is a fisherman and hockey buff — with hockey hair, to boot — who takes boxing lessons, even a renowned chef with Puck as a last name would be wise to step aside.
Especially when Howard’s sidekick, the 6-foot, 4-inch Jason Laumb, strolls into the kitchen with a plate of fish fresh from the outside fryer.
Puck may not be a fisherman, and neither Howard nor Laumb are particularly prone to anything more violent than a hip check while playing beer league hockey. The point, though, is that even a celebrity chef likely would have been impressed with the evening meals served up last week in an outpost cabin in the Canadian wilderness nearly 200 miles from civilization.
Burgers and brats? Forget that.
Evening meals last week at the Malette Lake Outpost included Fresh Walleye in White Wine Sauce, Fresh Walleye with Black Butter Caper Sauce, Lake Trout Linguini and Thai Fish Tacos.
The meals, fit for a five-star restaurant but with better surroundings, were a huge hit with the fish camp crew.
Howard, 28, of St. Paul, has earned a reputation for his kitchen creations as part of a crew that convenes every October for a grouse hunting trip in northern Minnesota. He learned the ropes from his father-in-law, Paul Hinderlie, who once ran the Harbor View Cafe, an acclaimed eatery in Pepin, Wis.
Laumb, who says he’d rather cook for eight people than wash two coffee cups, took care of the fish frying duties last week while Howard worked the kitchen stove. Reduction sauces are his specialty, and drizzled atop fish and wild game, the results are stunning.
It’s all about timing and feel, Howard says, kind of like jigging for lake trout or walleyes.
“You don’t measure anything — you go by taste, smell and look,” he said. “It goes by how you’re feeling.
“I really haven’t gotten good at making it until now,” said Howard, a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Cancer Center. “I’ve been working on it for about six years — not constantly, I wasn’t making it professionally — off and on, making it at home and on hunting trips.”
Laumb, of Grand Forks, and Howard collaborated on the menu for last week’s fishing trip. Howard supplied a list of ingredients and Laumb did the shopping. Laumb also manned the kitchen for breakfasts, which ranged from pancakes to bacon and eggs.
Lunches consisted of sandwiches or leftovers from Howard’s evening creations.
“It’s really not that much more difficult to make a nice meal than it is to put a hotdog on a grill,” Laumb said. “Especially when there’s two of you working on it. Peter would make the sauce, and I would get the meat ready.”
Like linemates in hockey, the pair have a rapport in the kitchen and work as a team.
“It’s nice to have someone like Peter there that knows how to make those fancy sauces,” Laumb said. “It’s one of those deals where you can’t show someone how to do that.”
Speaking like the chemical engineer he is, Laumb also touched on the chemistry involved.
“Especially that black butter caper sauce — you’re mixing something really acidic (balsamic vinegar) with butter, and if you don’t heat it up properly, the sauce can come apart, and you need to be standing there the whole time.”
Frying fish and preparing the sauces at the same time would have been difficult, Howard said.
“It was really helpful having Jason there to cook all the fish,” he said. “That’s when things get a little crazy. If I was running in and out the door trying to cook fish while making sure the cream wasn’t burning on the sauce, it would have been tough. It was nice to have an extra set of hands in the kitchen.”
Laumb said the food added 60 pounds of weight — not including the fish, which the lake provided — to the floatplane load, and the bill came to $189, or $23 per person.
That would barely pay for a glass of wine at a five-star restaurant.
“It’s all really reasonable,” Howard said. “You have to have the man hours and capability to make it work. And half the fun is creating new things and working with it. The best part is wild fish and game — they’re really easy to work with.”
After dinner, the chefs were free to kick back and enjoy the evening with a beer or — in Howard’s words — “the quintessential Scotch and cigar,” while the rest of the crew cleaned up.
Kind of like the guys who run the Zamboni during periods; it’s all part of the hockey game.
“I really liked the division of labor at the camp, and different folks pitched in,” Laumb said.
Howard says the time in the kitchen didn’t cut into his fishing. Dinner was late one night because he and his fishing partners hit a walleye bite they couldn’t leave.
It was worth the wait.
“If you’re not operating on a strict schedule, it doesn’t really matter,” Howard said. “There’s something real satisfying about everybody enjoying a meal, and compliments are payment enough.”