Foods of the World, in the Woods of New Hampshire
Sargent Center chef brings gourmet touch to Winter Family Camp, other events
Click on the slide show above to see Victor Béguin in his kitchen at the Sargent Center.
Victor Béguin remembers just one phrase in Tsonga, the nativelanguage of the Shangaan tribe among whom he grew up in South Africa:“We eat to continue to eat.” It’s a handy aphorism for any food lover,but since Béguin is also a chef, it’s something closer to a lifephilosophy.
Like a gifted musician who can play a piece of music after hearing it only once, Béguin, head chef at Boston University’s Sargent Center for Outdoor Educationin Hancock, N.H., can re-create a dish just by tasting it. Hehas no formal culinary education, but a peripatetic upbringing withmissionary parents exposed him to a world of cuisines, starting inLemana, South Africa. “I could literally step outside my backyard andwalk across to a row of houses with cook pots going in the yards,” herecalls. “I could just go around and taste.”
Béguinhas combined a lifetime of tasting with a food historian’s zeal forunderstanding the origins of the dishes he makes. He is as likely toreference Julia Child as he is to quote from the Sufi poet Rumi. Whilea philosophical leaning is not part of the job requirement at Sargent,it does add an unexpected dimension to an easily dismissed gastronomicgenre: conference cuisine.
The SargentCenter has been part of BU since 1932; it started as the summerlocation for Sargent College founder Dudley Allen Sargent’s teachertraining programs. Today, it hosts large and diverse groups, ranging from corporateand nonprofit organizations to the BU-affiliated families that attend Winter Family Camp — now taking reservations — in January. It’s up to Béguin and hisstaff to feed them, and for Béguin, that means something more than justsatisfying hunger.
For a group ofIndonesian gamelan percussionists and their students, for example,Béguin researched and created a menu that reminded them of home. “ThisJavanese dancer came through the crowd like a goddess,” he recalls.“She called to me and said the meal was wonderful. It is pretty amazingwhen people recognize their culture in the food you have made forthem.”
When he took over the menuplanning and cooking for the school groups that visit Sargent duringthe week, Béguin laid down some ground rules. “I said, ‘I am not fryingfood. No chicken nuggets. I need a license to improve this food so thatit is local, sustainable, and healthy, as much from scratch aspossible.’”
He also axed the frozenpizza, coming up with a Sicilian-style dough made with whole-wheatflour (he sneaks fresh vegetables into the sauce).
Ashe has changed the menu options at Sargent, his food has started aconversation about sustainability and health. “I had a kid who wouldnot eat anything but white bread and crackers and sugar,” he recalls.The teachers asked Béguin to address the issue of healthy eating withthe children. “I asked all of the kids, ‘Why do we eat?’ They said, ‘Weneed energy.’ A little girl said, ‘Because we are part of the foodchain.’”
Finally, he heard the answer he was looking for: we eat forthe enjoyment of it. “I said, ‘Exactly. The point of eating is so wecan continue to eat.’”
Winter Family Camp takes place January 16-19, 2009. Rates, which include meals, activities, and lodging, vary according to accommodations and are $210 to $245 for adults, $155 to $185 for children ages 10 to 17, and $105 to $130 for children ages 6 to 9; children under 5 are free. For more information, visit the Winter Family Camp Web site.
This story originally ran in the summer 2008 issue of Bostonia magazine.