ROCKY MOUNTAIN COOKING
Q+A WITH CHEF KATIE MITZEL
By Meghan J. Ward
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“Rich and deliberate flavours, delicious savoury vegetables, heavenly soups and hearty, oven-roasted meats are a feast for the eyes, nose and taste-buds,” says Katie Mitzel, author of Rocky Mountain Cooking (Penguin Random House). They are also a well-known staple of backcountry life in the Canadian Rockies, and now cooks everywhere can bring those recipes into their own homes. We check in with Mitzel to learn about the inspiration behind her new cookbook and what kind of recipes you’ll find inside.
Meghan J. Ward/ How and where did you learn to cook?
Katie Mitzel/ I wasn’t always a cook but I was always an eater. After I began working in the backcountry, the desire to grow my position became pretty obvious to me if I wanted to keep doing the things I loved. After a couple of seasons as a lodge assistant, I was given the opportunity to put into action some of the awesome moves I had learned over the years of travelling overseas and working in many restaurants and kitchens, and in some busy backcountry kitchens as well. I jumped in with both oven mitts on and landed the head chef position at Skoki Lodge. The kitchen was extraordinarily busy and fast-paced so I was challenged to either step it up or move on.
I gained a lot of knowledge in those first couple seasons as lodge chef – not just the cooking part, but also how to navigate food orders over a radio phone that cut in and out, how to organize transport, food management and food safety, as well as food pairing and quantities. There was so much more to the position than I realized and it became paramount to me to find the balance of amazing food coupled with outdoor time. One was imperative to the guest and staff experience, while the other was crucial to my own sanity and focus. Both culminated in a passion for creativity in cooking and I found myself driven to excel at big flavours, gorgeous textures, and nourishing offerings.
I learned to cook on the job I guess would be the short answer, but there’s so much more to it than that.
I’ve taken courses here and there, but think I really learned to cook more through trial and error, paying attention to other, successful, cooks, and by evaluating my own successful menus.
MW/ What are the biggest challenges of cooking in a backcountry environment?
KM/ Supplying the lodges can be a real challenge – an ongoing one, even with the most efficient and tactful staff handling it. Boxes get wet, food can freeze, things get forgotten or don’t show up to be packed, avocados end up in glacial lakes after falling out of the helicopter sling, eggs get broken… the list is really quite endless! But, like life in general, you have to roll with the punches and be thankful for the items that do arrive intact and make the most of the things that didn’t (ie. use them ASAP!).
Lack of amenities can also be a huge challenge. Hauling water can be exhausting and time-consuming and can slow down production if it is not kept up. Cooking on a wood stove is, in most cases, a thing of the past, but warming a lodge at 5 a.m. just so you can take your toque and mitts off to start flipping pancakes is not. More and more, the lack of WiFi seems to be a challenge for some, which never used to be an issue.
I think for me, personally, one of the biggest challenges is organization. You need to be in the kitchen at the crack of dawn, working as hard and as efficiently as possible, while still greeting guests and staff and staying on task so you can put out breakfast on time and then prep for lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner – which always includes fresh-baked loaves of bread, dessert, and so forth.
Unforeseen scenarios almost always come up and have to be dealt with daily. But, if you don’t stay on task, you don’t get to ski or hike that day, and for me not getting out can create a bit of a funk in the creative flow. Most shifts are two weeks on so that means long days and short nights. It’s nothing like the front country, where you can leave the kitchen behind and do other things; lodge life is a different beast and making things run smoothly and efficiently as the only cook can put a lot of pressure on you. For some of us, that is the biggest challenge, but it also comes with the greatest rewards!
MW/ How does Rocky Mountain Cooking embody the “backcountry gourmet” experience that the mountain lodges are so famous for?
KM/ The lodge experience of sitting down every morning and every evening, breaking bread with your fellow lodge mates and getting to plan your day or recount your day over a gorgeous and plentiful meal is as much a part of the experience as powder turns or seeing a grizzly bear.
What I found was that the lodge experience is incredibly unique to each location. Rocky Mountain Cooking recipes were fan favourites regardless of their location and a new audience was both enchanting and invigorating. Meals are always something to celebrate after a day of adventuring and calorie burning, and the enduring backcountry gourmet recipes that I have created are always met with tremendous enthusiasm even by the guests that had spent a quiet afternoon by the fire reading a book.
Rich and deliberate flavours, delicious savoury vegetables, heavenly soups and hearty, oven-roasted meats are a feast for the eyes, nose and taste-buds. Mountain lodges obviously have a captive audience every day as there is usually no one else around to tempt, or anywhere else to go for food. What the lodges totally get is that all of these folks sitting down for a meal are used to busy lives, with busy schedules that don’t usually allow for 2-3 hour dinners, often by candlelight for days on end. Rocky Mountain Cooking has taken this very moment and offered you the opportunity to take it back out with you: the enjoyment and bliss of an uninterrupted meal, reminding you to relax, unwind, and recharge.
“The lodge experience of sitting down
every morning and every evening, breaking bread
with your fellow lodge mates and getting to plan your day
or recount your day over a gorgeous and plentiful
meal is as much a part of the experience as
powder turns or seeing a grizzly bear.”
MW/ What’s different about Rocky Mountain Cooking compared to other cookbooks on the market?
KM/ It was important to me that it also made the backcountry “feel” accessible to those who haven’t yet made it to a backcountry lodge – to make it both inviting and something to look forward to. Marrying the food and mountain photography into one cookbook also makes the book a visual delight. You don’t have to be a mountain fanatic or gourmet cook to adore the story this book is telling of the natural world and how it often leads back to a delicious meal with friends and family.
MW/ What are your personal favourite recipes in the cookbook?
KM/ Oh boy! That is always a loaded question, mainly because I make all of them all of the time, so swing back and forth between the sweet and savoury, warm and rich. I suppose if I were to tell you what I was craving right now, it might offer some insight into a couple of recipes that certainly inspire me and might become your favourite too: Savory Aioli Chicken is always a hit. It combines a piquant and addictive aioli with a hint of hot sauce and a citrus finish. The Backcountry Sourdough Bread is an easy, step-by-step recipe that will get the beginner sourdough bread maker into the swing of things.
And, of course, we are coming up on soup season. There are some pretty scrumptious and warming soups that are simple and delectable… Loaded Baked Potato Soup, Red Lentil and Creamy Carrot Soup are all-time favourites, as is the Killer Vegetarian Chili.
The Sides and Satisfiers don’t disappoint, nor do the baked goods and salads and dressings… Lemony Lavender Buttermilk Cake, Chocolate with Chocolate on Chocolate Salted Cookies, and Beet Hummus, oh my, this cookbook covers a lot of bases, but all of the ingredients are local and simple to find and the recipes are wonderfully simple to follow.
Let me know when you’ve found your favourite!!
MW/ Anything you’d like to add?
KM/ I had a lot of success with the Skoki Cookbook because of so many incredible guests and staff that passed through the doors of the backcountry lodges I have been honoured to work at. I hope folks find this book as delightful as the last and recognize it’s the perfect gift to give to everyone and anyone who likes to cook, ski, hike, read, sleep and spend time in and out of the kitchen It is a gorgeous hardcover book, has a perfect binding so it lays flat and invites the reader to explore a little bit about me and some of the lodges I have been connected with.
Find more details on Rocky Mountain Cooking here.
Writer, adventurer, outdoorsy mama and summit cartwheeler, Meghan J. Ward is the editor and co-founder at Crowfoot Media and lives for backcountry getaways.
The views and opinions expressed in the articles on CrowfootMedia.com are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.