cooking during burning man
Thomas (center) preparing food (Photo: Courtesy Biju Thomas)

How to Feed 150 People in the Desert

Chef Biju Thomas explains how he not only survives, but thrives, at Burning Man

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Chef Biju Thomas

I’m driving through rolling, green countryside when things start to look more arid. Then, I’m in a cloud of dust. Dust, fine like talcum powder, on the ground and hanging in the air. This is where I’m going; it will be four and a half hours before I reach the Burning Man entry gates. Windstorms whip around my pickup truck as I crawl ahead. There are no gas stations and only occasional Porta Potties along the road that I abandon the truck to use. The logistics of life on the Playa are not for the faint of heart–and I haven’t even officially arrived yet.

Each year, some 70,000 Burning Man attendees make this journey to Black Rock City in the Nevada desert. A community of creatives and adventure seekers constructs a pop-up city, lives together for a week, and then breaks it all back down to dust. As early arrivers—mostly people with special passes to build major projects—trickle in, the city seems to double in size and complexity every 24 hours. By Saturday, when most attendees arrive, it looks like you’ve landed in a bustling, futuristic metropolis with lights that stretch out into the dark desert night and EDM coming from everywhere, all the time.

Once you’ve shown your ticket at the gate, the Playa is a currency-free zone—there’s nowhere to buy anything, even basic supplies. What you eat, drink, and experience at Burning Man is entirely dependent on how well you plan, what you pack, and the generosity of the people you meet. This brings me to my first piece of advice for first-timers: Don’t go alone. You want to be invited along with people who have gone in the past, people who already know what they’re doing and will look out for each other. Here are some other tips I learned during my stay.

What to Bring to Burning Man

Even if you’re staying at an established camp with a group of seasoned Burners, there are still some things you’re going to want to bring for yourself. Number one is water. It’s something of an unspoken law of the Playa that, while people might offer to share all kinds of things with one another—food, drinks, drugs, art—asking someone to share their water is off limits. The attitude is that it’s your responsibility to bring your own and make sure you don’t die. (Naturally, in the case of an actual emergency, people will lend one another a hand and there are medical services available, but not bringing yourself enough water is considered somewhere between a significant party foul and an offense to everything Burning Man represents.)

Start with five gallons of personal drinking water then add whatever additional water you need for cooking, washing yourself and your cookware, and anything else you might need. Need to have a cup of coffee to start your day? Then you’ll need more water for that, too. If you’re staying with a camp, figure out in advance what can be shared communally and who needs to bring what.

That applies to food, too. At my camp, we fed 150 people every meal, every day of the event. But even if you’re staying with a smaller group, don’t expect to subsist on trail mix and protein gels. Sharing, being generous with your neighbors, and putting creativity into what you give to the community are big deals here.

As much as possible, I recommend planning out every meal in advance and prepping before you even head to the venue. Measure, chop, and pack up everything you can beforehand, label it for each meal, and store it all in ice chests for the trip. That will help with organization and save time and effort when you’re trying to get your ingredients together amid a dust storm and minimize the waste you need to take back out with you.

Some folks construct elaborate restaurants and bars during their time, including one group that has been creating a project they call Golden Guy Alley since 2017, featuring an entire neighborhood of tiny cafes and bars inspired by the bustling allies and nightlife of Tokyo. Another camp creates a New Orleans-inspired French Market with chicory coffee, bourbon cocktails, and beignets. Some of these pop-ups run throughout the week, others serve for just an hour or two and then never again. Anyone at Burning Man is welcome to eat and drink at these pop-ups (if you can find them, that is), but the unspoken rule is you should be prepared to invite your camp neighbors and others over for something at your place, too, at least once during your stay.

If you’re hosting company, you’re going to need some way to cook. Try to bring rugged equipment that can stand up to the conditions and bring as few items as you can get away with: barbecue grills or one- to two-burner propane stoves should be enough for a basic set-up. Just remember, this is Burning Man. You don’t want to just show up with a can of beans.

What It’s Like to Cook and Eat on the Playa

Dust and sand are a fact of life at Burning Man. As soon as you arrive, a greeter throws dust all over you—there’s just no point trying to avoid it; you might as well get acclimated. But this sand isn’t like the crunchy and rocky sand you’re probably used to on the beach. This is more chalky and powder-like. Camps will use RVs and structures to try to create inner circles with less sand, but one strong wind will blow it right over just the same.

The sand doesn’t have much of a taste or texture when it inevitably gets into food, but it can make you feel even more thirsty than you would already be. And everyone is always thirsty. That informs what you want to cook. At our camp, most of what we served was high-acid, punchy flavors with lots of salt, like a cold vegetable slaw with vinegar, soy sauce, and hot chiles. (Nobody wants a mashed potato dinner when they’ve been sweating all day.) Citrus is particularly important. Of course, you want the bright, refreshing flavors, but for another reason, too: While I don’t take psychedelics myself, those who do report that lemon juice, in particular, accentuates and prolongs the effects of psilocybin.

On Decompressing and Returning to Normal Life

When you change your routine and go on any big trip, you never come home feeling 100 percent. And a week in the desert can really take a toll on the body: you just spent a week consuming a crazy, high-sodium diet, you’ve been in the sun, and you haven’t been keeping up your typical habits. After those conditions, when you get back you’re most likely going to be bloated and puffy.

As you reenter post-Burning Man life, consider cutting back on your sodium intake and focusing on eating healthy, fresh foods at your regular meal times. Once you’ve rested up, get back to your exercise routines. But most of all: show yourself some kindness and don’t be too hard on yourself about a bit of sluggishness when you’ve just come back from this wild experience. Just know it’s normal to take several days of hydrating and a normal routine before you’re back to your usual self. But remember: the memories are worth it.—As told to Brittany Martin

Lead Photo: Courtesy Biju Thomas

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