How two New England entrepreneurs revolutionized dinner on the trail
David Koorits is showing me his tree house. It's about 30 feet in the air, and he and his wife often hold little cocktail parties up here. Capacity is soiree-worthy, roughly 10 adults, maybe more. It uses two trees for support, and David, who designed and built the thing, even accounted for wind-sway by using cables to support the weight, almost like a suspension bridge. The best part? To get down, you open a hatch and slide down a pole, firehouse style.
He got the idea on a backpacking trip and then busted his ass on his days off to make it a reality. That same same trail-inspiration bearing real-world fruits lead him and his ebullient wife, Jennifer Scism, to launch a line of dehydrated camping food. Their mission: to elevate expectations of what trail food can taste like (tuna-mac wasn't cutting it). "When you sit down to dinner in camp and take that first bite, we want you to say 'Wow!'," says Jennifer, and a lot of hikers have been having that wow moment.
After my friends at Backpacker magazine gave the thai curry an Editors' Choice Award in 2014, I took several bags of Good To-Go on a climbing trip to Chattanooga and came home a believer. Simply stated, it tastes like real food, because, well, it is. Jennifer cooks large batches of a given meal in their commercial kitchen using locally sourced ingredients, then they dehydrate it. Plain as that.
I had a chance to hang out with David and Jennifer to see their facilities, camp out, and hike up Mt. Washington this past summer. I was inspired by the way their business grew from a passion for wild places and their refreshing take on food, so much so that I talked them into writing a trail food column for us called Elevated Kitchen. It begins with a timely post giving you everything you need to do a full Thanksgiving dinner at camp and will roll onward to cover wine pairings, "gas station gourmet" menu ideas, and more. It's more about taste and eating mindfully, than about pure performance.
Here's an introduction to my new favorite hiking foodies:
How did you two come to love the outdoors?
D: I moved from Montreal to rural Connecticut as a kid. I had a real New Englander stepdad and just fell in love with being outside all the time. Tractors and a lot of land, just love it. As a high school graduation present, I had an Outward Bound course in Maine, then in college I chose to major in business and was totally miserable. Then, I moved to Bellingham, Washington and changed my major to Outdoor Education. After graduating, I worked with at-risk kids in Utah at Second Nature. Within a day’s drive, I could be climbing the Grand or touring the coast. I did all these amazing trips, and that was my life for several years. Then I wanted to settle a bit and got a nursing degree in New Hampshire. I intended to be a travel nurse, but I stayed.
J: I had woods behind my house as a kid, and I went to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, which is out in the sticks. Then, I moved to NYC to be an interior designer, working for an architect. Through my 20s and 30s, I was a total city rat, which became exhausting. Once I wasn’t cool anymore and I didn’t care to be cool, I bought a house in Maine and spent long weekends up here. I just knew my city time was coming to an end. Some friends connected Dave and I, and when first met he asked, “What’s the farthest you’ve ever been from a road?”
I was like, "Uh, Vail, Colorado?" He was horrified and asked if I wanted to try backpacking. I had nothing. I didn’t even have boots.We went to REI and spent $1,500 on everything. We went up into the Whites, and I loved it, despite the heavy packs. It’s relaxing and meditative. David becomes more creative, and I zone out. I look at my feet with no thought, or I think about food.
Tell me about your relationship with food.
J: In the early 90s my firm was laying people off, and I knew my number was up. I’d always loved experimenting with food, so I decided to enroll at the French Culinary Institute in NYC. The school’s restaurant hired me, then I got hired to work at a 4-star restaurant in Tribeca, Bouley. Later, Anita Lo, my business partner, opened a restaurant in 2000, Annisa. I was a sous-chef and chef de cuisine; eventually, I took the front of the house and became a sommelier.
I loved the exactness of cuisine, but I never put much thought into what we’d cook on our backpacking trips. David would bring Annie’s mac & cheese, tuna fish, and some sausage and cheese. Eventually, I was over it and started to vacuum pack fresh food. I loved figuring out how to get good food into the backcountry without a lot of weight—as I mentioned I don’t like heavy packs.
Eating in the backcountry should feel like home.
Describe the moment when you realized you might have a business on your hands.
J: We had a sailing trip with a couple friends; they ate our food and told us so. We knew nothing about branding, but we looked into what that means. And packaging! Jeez! And would people even care that this is natural stuff with no preservatives? We know it’s a trend, but will it really fly for camping food?
We heard a lot of great support for it, and we decided to retrofit my catering kitchen for dehydrating. We were able to get up and going pretty quickly. And we just keep pushing.
D: Eastern Mountain Sports tried it in 12 stores and then eventually all 68. REI [which owns Hiking Project] took 300 and now buys by the thousands. They want 20,000 units this month!
What sets you guys apart?
J: I don’t know much about the competition to be honest! We source all of our ingredients right here in Maine, which has a short growing season. We do a lot of testing as well. We tried so many Arborio rices, for example, where others might just use a normal rice. But if it weren’t Arborio, it wouldn’t be risotto! There are other Pad Thais out there, but look at our ingredients and it’s the same stuff that’s in a recipe book, how’d you make it at home. I’m very excited and particular about the ingredients we use.
D: We want to grow the business to the point where we can bring in some managers, so we can take that week vacation! It's good for business, too; Jenn gets her ideas from travel. We have a week-long bike tour in Nova Scotia on the radar.
J: Product-wise. Hippy oats! [ed. Note.We sampled an early version of this, camping with Jen and Dave prior to hiking Mt. Washington this past June. It's a hearty oatmeal with hemp seeds and ginger and other spices, a perfect blend of warming sweetness.] I also want to do bibimbap, paella, and another chile maybe incorporating pulled pork. I won’t go crazy on dessert, but blueberries are a Maine staple, so maybe a crumble. I’ve been playing with dehydrating quinoa and certain packaging techniques for wet food, like for lunch, things that are quicker. We want to expand your outdoor experience.
Lastly, what’s your favorite local adventure?
D: We spend a lot of time paddle boarding the York River. There are 48 peaks in New Hampshire higher than 4,000 feet, and I’ve hiked them all. Now we’re doing it with our dog. Our favorite places are the Zealand Falls Hut in the Whites, Mt. Washington, and Franconia Ridge. All high up with spectacular views.
This article is part of Elevated Kitchen, a column aimed at making backcountry meals in the backcountry fun, not drudgery.