It’s true what they say. There’s nothing quite like a feast in the forest.
I was recently reminded of this during a visit to a cozy backcountry lodge perched above a mountain lake, surrounded by lush temperate rainforest.
The menu includes salad topped with burnt orange vinaigrette and a slow poached quail’s egg, morel mushrooms and dumplings, savoury trout with creamed nettle, and melt-in-your-mouth elk osso bucco with truffle cheddar polenta and fireweed gremolata.
The final touch? Freshly-foraged, spruce tip-infused creme brûlée for dessert.
As impressive as the menu is, the lodge’s rustic vibe and remote location — at the foot of the dramatic Lizard Range in the Canadian Rockies and surrounded by nearby trails to hike and bike and a lake to paddle — is what especially brings the experience home.
”Eating with us is like enjoying an extravagant picnic,” says lodge chef Keith Farkas — known for his seared scallops with orange cardamom relish and his cedar maple gastrique smoked pork chops. “But instead of going to the park with a backpack full of crackers and cheese, you come here, to the mountains, and you let us prepare your meal.”
Cooking to high standards in remote wilderness locations can be challenging, says Farkas, who has worked in a handful of lodges throughout Western Canada.
“Here, our food comes in by snow cat in the winter. We do our best to put more delicate produce in the heated cab and wrap it in insulated blankets, but sometimes the cold can’t be beat and we end up with frozen basil and icy lettuce.”
I remember interviewing chef Katie Mitzel a few years back, during a visit to Skoki Lodge, about the trials and tribulations of chefs working in the wilderness. She grinned and said that sometimes, when produce arrived after bumpy trips through mountain passes carried by pack horses, fresh raspberries had morphed into raspberry jam and cream had turned to butter.
Executive Chef Alistair Barnes of Emerald Lake Lodge, who has spent a career working with Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts (which also includes Deer Lodge in Lake Louise and Banff’s Buffalo Mountain Lodge) insists that flexibility is a requirement for anyone considering a career as a backcountry chef.
“You can be at the wish of the elements. Mud slides. Avalanches. Storms. Flooding. We’ve experienced all of these things. These situations can affect supplies coming in and people being able to leave. As a chef, you’ve got to be able to think on your feet and improvise if you get cut off temporarily from civilization. You have to innovate with what’s in the pantry,” says Barnes, before adding with a chuckle:
“We’re well known for our wine selection so there’s always lots of fortification to go around in a crisis situation. Basically, in the backcountry, the kitchen just doesn’t have the support it would have in a city.”
Then there’s the question of wild animals. Not long ago, I paid a visit to Alberta’s historic Storm Mountain Lodge where I met Chef Guillaume Sylvain.
“What makes it so special here is that you never know what’s going to happen. Every year, we get visits from grizzlies and black bears foraging for food around the lodge,” says Sylvain, who specializes in boreal cuisine cooking traditions from Quebec.
“Then we need to put our dinner service on pause, stop the kitchen and accept that the guests are going to want to observe the animals. We’re in pure wilderness here, co-existing with bears, pine martens, elk, deer and cougar.”
Every chef I speak with during research for this story has a wild animal story. The day I contact Leandro Vega, executive chef at Mount Engadine Lodge, located near Canmore, he’s literally just witnessed what he describes as a “National Geographic moment.”
“It was crazy. Just below the lodge we had a grizzly and two wolves take down a moose. I mean, this is circle of life stuff,” says Vega, who moved to Canada a year ago from Argentina to take the position.
“It’s a different world here. I used to cook for 500 to a thousand people a day in Argentina. Now I cook for 20. It’s like having people in my home. It’s so beautiful. The surroundings. How much we can enjoy life, and relax. It’s like when you set a beautiful table, you enjoy your food more. Here, it’s the table and it’s everything else, as well. Everything, including wild animals, contributes to the enjoyment of a meal.”
Another theme that pops up repeatedly among backcountry chefs is, as Vega has just referenced, quality of life.
The work is tough — as Annick Blouin of British Columbia’s Assiniboine Lodge (which helicopters its produce in) will say — but it’s worth it.
“We work hard here at Assinboine Lodge. We’re running around all day. We literally fall into bed at night and pass out. But to be able to share this incredible landscape with our guests, who have travelled so far to be with us, and to enjoy it ourselves, is a privilege. Sometimes as staff we have to step out of the whirlwind, take in the beauty and breathe deeply because oh my God it’s beautiful here.”
Back at Island Lake Lodge, we’re about to crack into our spruce-tip infused creme brûlée, made by the talented on site pastry chef Catherine Chartrand. There’s a glow in the dining room. The day has been a good one.
Guests have been mountain biking, hiking the surrounding old growth trails, canoeing, hitting up the spa for body scrubs and sipping rosé over lunch on the deck.
I’m glowing too. I’m still enjoying the fact that I’m tucked away, far from the rat race of the city, in a log cabin in the woods.
I’m still enjoying the fact that earlier that day, I peered out my window to see an adolescent grizzly bear foraging for berries, having his own feast in the forest, just a stone’s throw away.
*Editor’s note: This post was created in collaboration with our partners in tourism. None of our partners in tourism reviewed or edited our story before publication.
Founded by two Canucks on the loose in a big country, Toque & Canoe is a blog about Canadian travel culture.