Staff Spotlight: Merrowvista’s Jamie Sweetser

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Seven years ago, Jamie Sweetser’s family friend Kim Novotny convinced her to try something new. She joined the seasonal kitchen team at Merrowvista and, under Novotny’s guidance as Food Program Manager, Jamie dove headfirst into her first professional cooking job. Today, she’s part of the full-time team as Assistant Food Service Manager, working closely with Novotny to provide campers and Community and School Program participants nutritious, delicious scratch-made meals. Here, she shares why she was so excited to join the full-time team and the best parts of cooking for campers.

How did you first learn about Merrowvista?
“Kim convinced me to fly to Miniwanca with her for the 2017 staff retreat to cook for everyone, even though I had no experience in a professional kitchen. It was challenging and it pushed me out of my comfort zone in so many ways, but every day I’m thankful for her belief in me. I wouldn’t be where I am if she didn’t push me to do something that scared me all those years ago.”

Why were you interested in joining the full-time team?
“Each summer and fall, I felt accomplished and proud at the end of the day. I wanted that to be my full-time, year-round feeling.” 

Mealtimes at Merrowvista are more than just eating. What surprised you most when you first joined the food program team?
“The noise and excitement! When I picture sitting down for a meal, its chitchatting and laughing with the people around you, enjoying their company. All of that happens here at camp, but with the addition of singing, drumming on tables, dancing around the Eating Lodge, squeals of happiness, and campers yelling at the top of their lungs with excitement.”

What would surprise people most about the work you do?
“Kim and I are both continuously trying to improve all aspects of how we do our jobs, whether that’s traveling to food shows to see what the latest trends are or if we can improve the quality of products we already order. We also work hard to make sure our dietary needs are met. I love to find new and tasty recipes for our gluten-free and vegan campers. We want them to eat just as well as someone without any dietary restrictions.”   

The AYF Food Program Guiding Principles focus on educating campers on health and our food system’s impact on the environment. Why are these important messages for youth to hear?
“It’s important for many reasons. One that impacts the kitchen directly is reducing our food waste. We explain to kids that if they are eating with their eyes and take more than they can consume, more food inevitably gets thrown away or put into compost.

“We also love to introduce new foods to kids. We have ‘try-me’ bowls of fresh local veggies not all kids may have access to or have ever tried. We give a taste to each camper at a table and have a big bowl of extras on our salad bar. You’d be surprised how many kids love beets and brussels sprouts!”

What are your favorite meals to make for campers?
“I love the happiness on kids’ faces when they walk into the kitchen to see big bowls of their favorite foods. Sometimes it’s taco night, chicken fingers, or pasta of all kinds. But mac and cheese is always the winner when it comes to a comfort meal everyone loves at camp.

“We recently purchased a freeze dryer and in the future hope to bring our Four Trails campers and staff meals they wouldn’t normally be able to have on trail.”

What are your favorite things to do outside of work?
“I love spending time with family and friends. Kayaking and beach days will always be one of my favorite ways to relax. I also love going to concerts and discovering new music. There’s always music playing in the background, no matter where I am.” 

What’s your favorite meal to either make at home or eat out?
“I love Thai food and all its versatility. My Uncle Dan’s Thai basil chicken was always my favorite growing up, and I loved when he took the time to teach me his recipe side-by-side in the kitchen.”