If you haven’t been to Camp for a meal lately, you wouldn’t know about a beloved, long-time member of the staff, Elmer Odell. Even if you have been at Camp in the last several years, you still might not recognize the man behind our wonderful repasts. And Elmer is quite happy to remain in the background, running Camp’s kitchen with expertise. But keeping Elmer behind the scenes means missing out on a chance to get know a happy, friendly man.
Elmer grew up in Manchester, CT, and fell into the food business when he was an Education major at Central Connecticut State University in the late 1960s. He was in the right place at the right time, having just been denied a dishwashing job in the school cafeteria by the grouchy Head Chef. While sitting nearby, he heard plates crashing, disgruntled shouting and watched as a large number of the kitchen staff walked off the job. The Chef came out and said to Elmer, “Do you still want to wash dishes?” Elmer took the job and literally never left. Like an understudy filling in for the lead in a show, Elmer took over the grill one day as the Short Order Cook when that worker didn’t show up for a busy shift on Homecoming Weekend. Elmer ended up as the Assistant Manager by the time he graduated (after changing his major to Business). During that time, he caught the attention of the President of the University, who demanded Elmer be the waiter for all his high-level luncheons. Under Elmer’s watch, the kitchen maintained nearly 100% retention of staff and a high reputation for excellence.
The University didn’t have enough work for all its staff during the summers, so it would hire them out to area summer camps. Elmer was sent to work with a notoriously tough Chef at a camp of 650 girls in Pleasantville, NY. Despite the camp’s rural location, Elmer got along well with the chef, got great on-the-job training and returned there for five summers.
Over the next few years, he bought and sold a bar near Central (Elmer’s Place, which is still there). The bar was very successful, even being named the number one bar in Connecticut a couple times. He was married and divorced twice, and had twin daughters and two sons. Over time, Elmer also owned (and sold) three restaurants. Along the way he also had jobs with private schools such as the Gunnery and the Glenholme School. Eventually he ended up at Camp Washington in Morris, CT, as the Chef Manager. It was a place with three dining halls where he would serve Chicken Cordon Bleu for Friday night dinner. He also did regular fancy dinners for guests from around the state and large gatherings in the Fall for outside groups. Elmer’s teenaged daughters lived with him at camp and his sons visited regularly.
Elmer is not a man to sit idly. He often helped out friends in various kitchens after his regular work day, which is how he ended up at Camp Mohawk. He came to the assistance of Camp Chef Paul Calberg after Paul suffered a mild heart attack, starting with a couple nights a week while still working full time elsewhere. When Paul retired, his assistant was set to take the job, and dropped out just before Camp started. Fran called Elmer with the new opportunity, and Elmer has been with Mohawk ever since-for 20 something years.
The work Elmer does at Camp is so active, he loses 15-20 pounds every summer. The job is all encompassing: staff management, menu planning, supply ordering, maintenance of old equipment, and cleaning, cleaning, cleaning. He’s been known to help out around camp too, cleaning gutters and helping out with plumbing and electrical issues. He runs a calm, happy kitchen, and according to Fran, Elmer is the only Chef in the Marchand’s time to have international staff return to work for him year after year. Elmer keeps in touch with many former campers and staff from throughout his career.
One camper he remembers well, was a girl with a severe milk allergy. Her mom nervously dropped her off on Sunday and told Elmer she expected to be back within 24 hours to pick up her child up after an allergic reaction. Elmer personally fixed her meals for 2 weeks, and the girl had no problems. Her mother was so grateful that she offered him a large tip. He declined the tip and asked her to donate it to Mohawk’s Campership fund instead.
In spite of being past the average retirement age, Elmer hasn’t slowed down. He says he loves Camp, the Marchands and working with the campers. Two of his 11 grandchildren are Mohawk day campers and they love Mohawk too. And in a statement we’re all familiar with, Elmer said he loves driving down the road and knows every tree on it. He feels that working keeps him healthy and active and he doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon. Patrick is equally complimentary of Elmer: “The happiest I’ve seen Elmer is when he knows that his meal has made those campers happy. You can sometimes catch him smiling from behind the counter watching the campers enjoy the wonderful meals. Elmer is such a loyal, consistent, dedicated hard worker. He is here at camp night and day and does it all with a great attitude. Working in the kitchen is hard and Elmer somehow gets staff to return year after year to work by his side.”
By the way, Elmer has full-time job in addition to his work at Mohawk: he owns The Litchfield Candy Store on Rte. 202 in Litchfield. Elmer was busy wrapping chocolate Thanksgiving turkeys while we talked. He is quite a guy and Mohawk is so lucky to have him.