Camp Woodland Blog

A tribute to Dan Montgomery, Camp Woodland Chef Extraordinaire

If you have ever spent a summer at Woodland, you know that the food is beyond good, it is exceptional. First timers tell us that they had no idea how wonderful the meals would be. For a total of 22 years since 1990, the person we can attribute this amazing dining experience to is none other than our very own, Dan Montgomery. 

Dan was working for a sorority at the University of Illinois in Champagne, IL, when he responded to an ad placed in the school paper for a cook at a camp in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Both Anne and Jeff Jordan met Dan on campus for an interview as Jeff was a student there at the time. It didn’t take too much convincing that spending the summer in Wisconsin was a good idea. So, Dan along with his 3 kids, who were twelve and under, made their way north to what would be the first of many summers at Woodland and Towering Pines. 

Dan has worked in a variety of food service roles and started at a very young age. His parents ran a Burger Chef when he was growing up in Florida, and he could be found polishing the pipes under the sink, emptying trash, or doing a number of odd jobs when he was 7-8 yrs old. 

Dan studied culinary under a German chef at a hotel restaurant and banquet facility. When things slowed down and times were tough, Dan took over running the place because he had a knack for turning businesses around. He had a keen eye for seeing what could be better and simplifying processes. Dan was good at utilizing the strengths of people for the betterment of the team. It is not surprising that Dan’s next move was to run four major restaurants and a banquet hall with a seating capacity for up to 6000 people at a Holiday Inn Convention Center. 

It became evident that after working 20 hour days; however, Dan was ready for something with a more “reasonable” schedule. Thus, he came to manage the Hendrick House that had 400 rooms in its twin towers and 33 fraternity and sorority houses at the University of Illinois. He also mentored interns at Eastern Illinois University and taught them various recipes and techniques. Dan shared that the “key to being a good chef is knowing how to use seasonings. Bringing everything together is a feeling that you gain from observation and experience. Over time the ability to check for acidity or salt becomes natural.” I’m struggling to see how this new adventure was “more reasonable” as it appears to be way more hours than before!

Dan loved the challenge of coming up with new dishes under a budget. He has a “million” ways to prepare chicken and does this by changing up toppings and sauces. Another trick for this “kitchen magician” is that Dan can make a side out of just about anything. He is also known for his attention to detail and cleanliness and has been known to hide $100 bills under equipment to see if his workers were doing the same.

If it is possible to imagine, Dan shared with me that at some point in time he became “bored”. This is when he started to dabble in baking. Imagine the smell of artisan breads and fresh homemade cookies coming from the open oven door. We most definitely enjoy Dan’s homemade cookies throughout the summer. Dan also makes the annual birthday cake from scratch to celebrate another trip around the sun for Camp Woodland. I always look forward to the homemade frosting that is at least a mile high! 

At another time, Dan dove full force into the gingerbread house business. One of his most elaborate displays included 9 different houses to make up part of a town. He created a church with stained glass windows and a tower, then added a barbershop, bank, and post office to complete his make believe (and edible!) village. There was a river through town that glistened from blue corn syrup and included a covered bridge. Gumdrops could be found on chimneys with cotton candy smoke, roads made of licorice, and Andes mints used as shingles. This masterpiece was showcased on Thanksgiving morning and then was “opened” on Christmas morning to discover candy completely filling the inside much to the surprise of the recipients. 

Another adventure took Dan to manage a seafood restaurant/department within a grocery store (Schnuck’s) in St. Louis. While there, Dan showed customers how to make recipes with seafood. He was then recruited to Niemann Foods where he was the chef for the seafood department where he had a budget and equipment unlike he had ever seen before. With virtually no limits, Dan could really put his creativity to work to come up with some extraordinary dishes!

When I asked Dan what his favorite meal of all time is to cook, he responded with, “shrimp, sausage, and chicken gumbo.” Per Dan’s usual, the first time a new recipe is tried, he makes it as the recipe is intended. After that, any future iterations are nothing like the initial dish. Dan “makes it his own” with seasonings and other twists. Dan’s favorite camp meal to make is actually the favorite meal the campers and staff enjoy too. He loves putting together his infamous lasagne and knows the importance of getting it right each and every time! 

Another pearl of wisdom Dan shared is to “never push something out of the window that you wouldn’t serve to your grandmother.” I would have to agree with that statement 110%. While kids are not grandmothers, they can be pretty tough customers. When a 9 year old camper orders fettuccine alfredo at a restaurant following a summer at Woodland, you know the food has to pass the taste test (check!) AND be kid friendly enough to encourage exploration of “fancy” dishes (double check!). 

Thank you, Dan and team, for giving us another summer of fuel for busy camp days, sustenance to keep us healthy, and a dining experience that brings our community together for three meals a day throughout the entire camp season.

We look forward to year #23 in 2023!

p.s. If you need anyone to be a guinea pig the next time you are “bored,” you know where to find me.