Former Gourmet Chef Gives Camp Food — and Her Life — a Makeover
A former New York City restaurateur and chef has found a new life, and a new career, here in Maine.
Jennifer Scism, who trained at the French Culinary Institute, and won the Food Network's Iron Chef competition, has launched a business that combines her culinary skills with a new-found love of the outdoors.
By her mid-40's Jennifer Scism had spent most of her career indoors, first as an interior designer and then as a French-trained chef and sommelier. She worked in several four-star restaurants in New York. And then she met acclaimed chef Anita Lo, who became her friend and business partner.
"So we opened in 2000, a very small restaurant, 13-table restaurant, like 40 seats down in the West Village, called Annisa," Scism says. "It's an amazing restaurant and Anita was - and is - the chef and I was the general manager."
Scism worked the front of the house recommending wine to pair with Lo's creations, doing the bookkeeping and getting notice for her stylish dresses and designer 5-inch heels. The following year, Lo was named one of 10 best new chefs in America by Food and Wine Magazine.
Beating renowned chef Mario Batali in the TV cooking competition "Iron Chef" in 2005 further boosted Scism's career. But despite this success, Scism decided to reassess her life and work in the city, and make a change.
"I'd never lived anywhere but Ohio and New York City," she says, "and I realized it was time to make a change. And I just knew that there was something about the outdoors that I wanted to be closer with."
Scism bought a house in southern Maine, and for the next year began commuting back and forth to her restaurant in New York. She also started dating her future husband, David Koorits, an experienced backcountry hiker, paddler and skier who took her on her first overnight backpacking trip in New Hampshire.
"I've always been really active outdoors and I asked Jen, 'How far have you been from the road?' And she said, 'The top of a ski area.' I said, 'OK, we need to change that a little bit,' " he says. "I mean, I've been on three, four-week trips just in the wilderness."
"I'd seen pictures of people backpacking and over-nighting and camping," Scism says, "but it wasn't something I felt confident in doing on my own. So when he asked me if I wanted to go backpacking I said, 'Yes, I did want to' - although once I got suited up with my 50-pound pack I was a little trepidatious, but I still followed him into the woods."
And to her surprise she discovered she loved the woods, and the quiet and the views from the summit. After a while, she and Kooritz were spending time in the Cascades and the Adirondacks for a week at a time. And that's when Koortiz says he discovered that there was a problem. And the problem was the food.
"We were just bringing things easy to make - oatmeal," he says, "and we were bringing some freeze-dried meals and Jen wasn't liking all the food options."
So Scism started doing research on how to dehydrate some of her favorite dishes. She experimented, with good results. But then something happened that would change her life again. "Unfortunately, in the summer of 2009, our restaurant, Anita's and mine, burned down. Literally. It was a total loss. It was devastating."
At first, Scism threw herself into rebuilding. But it took months longer than expected and her heart wasn't in it. Scism decided to sell her share of the business to partner Anita Lo. But the two remain close, and Lo provided financial support for Scism's new business.
"So this is a little ginger, which smells fantastic," say Scism, who these days is hard at work in her commercial kitchen in Kittery, where she and Koorits are finding early success for their lightweight, dehydrated gourmet meals designed for outdoor enthusiasts. The brand is called "Good to Go," and Backpacker Magazine recently gave their Thai curry dish an Editor's Choice award.
"I mean, I think any hiker knows that everything tastes better in the outdoors because you're ravenous," says Kristin Hostetter, Backpacker's gear editor, who says food companies that market to ravenous hikers have had it easy for that reason. But she says this brand is unique, not only because it's fast - all you do is add hot water and wait 20 minutes - but because it's so good.
"It has so many different layers of flavor you're not used to tasting in a backpacking meal," Hostetter says.
Good to Go currently has four products for sale: smoked three-bean chile, mushroom risotto, classic marinara with penne and the Thai curry. Scism hopes to expand to about a dozen over the next year or so, including pad Thai.
She wants to make meals that are high in calories and also provide protein and fiber. And while there's a competitive market for products like this, Matt Servaites, a buyer for Cadillac Mountain Sports in Bar Harbor, says Good to Go is already flying off his shelves.
" I don't have the numbers in front of me, but it's already, if not our top camp food brand, it's going to be that," Servaites says. "They've made a big impact and I think their potential to grow is very large. I think they're going to be a big player in this market."
The only downside for Scism is that, while she's busy in the kitchen, she's has less time to spend backpacking.