It’s true what they say: there’s nothing quite like a feast in the forest.
I’m recently reminded of this during a visit to a cozy backcountry lodge, perched above a mountain lake and surrounded by lush temperate rainforest.
Featuring forest-foraged ingredients and contributions from Calgary-based guest chefs Justin Leboe (Model Milk and Pigeon Hole) and JP Pedhirney (Bridgette Bar), the menu includes salad dressed with burnt-orange vinaigrette and a slow-poached quail’s egg, morel mushrooms and dumplings, savoury rainbow trout with creamed nettle, and melt-in-your-mouth elk osso bucco with truffle cheddar polenta and fireweed gremolata.
Final touch? Spruce tip-infused creme brûlée for dessert. Of course.
Island Lake Lodge’s rustic vibe and remote location — at the foot of the dramatic Lizard Range in the Canadian Rockies and surrounded by nearby hiking and biking trails and a lake to paddle — takes this stellar menu to the next level.
”Eating with us is like enjoying an extravagant picnic,” says lodge chef Keith Farkas, who is known for dishes such as seared scallops accompanied by orange-cardamom relish and smoked pork chops brushed with cedar-maple gastrique.
“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 at a handful of lodges in Western Canada.
“Here, our food comes in by snowcat 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.”
During a visit to Skoki Lodge in Banff National Park a few years back, I spoke with chef Katie Mitzel 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 into 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.
He adds 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 near Banff 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 post 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 up to 1,000 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. Everything, including wild animals, contributes to the enjoyment of a meal.”
Vega touches on a theme that pops up repeatedly among backcountry chefs — quality of life.
The work is tough, but it’s worth it, says Annick Blouin of British Columbia’s Assiniboine Lodge.
“We work hard here at Assinboine Lodge. We’re running around all day. We literally fall into bed at night and pass out,” says Blouin, whose kitchen stocks are delivered by helicopter into the remote Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park location.
“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 nature and breathe deeply because, oh my God, it’s beautiful here.”
Back at Island Lake Lodge, day is turning into night and we’re about to crack into our spruce-tip-infused creme brûlée, made by the lodge’s talented pastry chef Catherine Chartrand. There’s a glow in the dining room.
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. Beyond enjoying the weekend’s culinary delights, I’m relishing the fact that I’m tucked away, far from the rat race of the city, in a log cabin in the woods.
I’m also enjoying the fact that earlier in the 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 Toque & Canoe’s partners in tourism.
Founded by two Canucks on the loose in a big country, Toque & Canoe is a blog about Canadian travel culture.