Lucky for us, our senior editor Valerie Berenyi caught up with Mitzel (who also wrote the bestselling Skoki Cookbook) to learn more about the perils of getting fresh ingredients into remote locations and what one serves royalty for dinner.
Q: How does a girl from Ontario wind up as the queen of Rocky Mountain backcountry cooking?
A: Growing up in Ontario, I always had a yearning for adventure. As kids, we spent lots of time in the outdoors. When I eventually landed a job in Banff National Park, there was no going back to Ontario. I embraced backcountry cooking because it allowed me to pursue two passions at once: cooking and outdoor time.
Q: Did you have any formal training, or was it all hands-on experience?
A: I’ve taken some cooking classes, but the majority of my skills come from watching how other backcountry cooks move through kitchens. I also take great delight in building menus and I have an unquenchable drive to get things done right!
Q: Did that backcountry experience include hauling water, chopping wood and cooking over wood stoves in primitive kitchens?
A: I definitely put in my time when I worked as a lodge assistant, but even as head chef I haul water, chop wood, shovel snow and unpack food boxes off horses and helicopters.
Manual labour makes you appreciate remote locations and how much work it takes to put gorgeous food on the harvest table. Most lodges today have more modern amenities, but water, power, heat and supply challenges still come into play every single day.
Q: How are ingredients brought into the backcountry?
A: Some lodges still use horses and mules, while the more remote outposts use helicopters. It can be a challenge. I’ve had food arrive frozen, crushed, wet and wild!
While pickers, packers and delivery assistants have mad skills to get items to us in perfect condition, there’s always the unknown: the snow machine that breaks down in minus 40; the mule carrying 30 dozen eggs starts bucking after stepping on a wasps’ nest; avocado and kiwi fruit drop from a helicopter sling and end up bobbing in a glacial lake.
Sometimes, cream arrives already whipped.
It’s the creative chef who can rescue these items and use them in a scrumptious soup or hearty salad. There have been occasions where staff have had to hike 20-plus kilometres out to fetch more eggs and return by foot with them strapped to their backs.
Q: You worked at legendary Skoki Lodge near Lake Louise for almost 20 years, from 1998 until 2017. What are some of your favourite memories?
A: Skoki will forever be a part of my heart. My memories are connected to my children, who spent their early years there, the friendships I made and continue to cherish, the delight of the guests who were always awestruck and the endless trails I travelled.
Q: I hiked into Skoki years ago and still recall a dessert of lacy tuiles and homemade ice cream that you served. It was amazing by any standard, but epic given the remote location. What are some of your other dishes that wow guests?
A: There’s always a chorus of oohs and aahs when I bring out a platter of Eggie Weggies: baked eggs, wrapped in bacon or prosciutto, and drizzled with hollandaise sauce.
Salted caramel buns are another fan favourite. And I’ve never seen anyone turn down my Seasonal Lamb with Mint Relish or Savory Aioli Chicken.
Q: Dish about what you served William and Kate when they visited Skoki Lodge for one night, by helicopter, in July of 2011?
A: The royal menu started with green salad, Alaskan king crab in puff pastry and tiger prawns, then moved onto AAA Alberta beef fillet and wild Alaskan halibut.
I finished with two desserts. William had chocolate cake with raspberry coulis and warm Callebaut chocolate topping and Kate enjoyed the cheesecake with golden raspberries.
Q: What are some of your kitchen hacks and key ingredients?
A: I like to plan a menu at least two days in advance. I pull my ingredients the day before so I can think about them in my sleep and have a game plan for each day. Of course, this has to include freshly baked bread and dessert ready for plating.
Staying on task, understanding your pantry and its ingredients and knowing how to prepare for 15 to 35 people is imperative. Key ingredients are plenty of grains, butter and milk, healthy proteins, root vegetables and eggs.
Having breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea goodies and dinner all ready to go by 10 or 11 a.m. guarantees I’ll have some outdoor time that day.
Q: Tell us about some of the encounters you’ve had with wildlife in the Rockies.
A: I’ve seen plenty of grizzly and black bears on hikes. I’ve stumbled upon ptarmigans who always scare the heck out of me with their camouflage and stillness and I’ve seen scruffy marmots that stand guard over giant boulders.
I’ve also heard the cry of a cougar, watched mountain goats climb like a gentle breeze over knife-thin cliffs and I’ve seen several lynx tracking snowshoe hares. Wolf and wolverine tracks are always memorable.
Q: Rocky Mountain Cooking is your second book, after The Skoki Cookbook, published in 2012. What defines backcountry cooking?
A: I think backcountry cooking is more a state of mind than a menu of heavy foods meant to replace calories.
Backcountry dining rooms are often candlelit and meals feature freshly baked bread, soup or salad starters, followed by a plated or family-style meal that often includes a marinated and roasted meat dish, two or three vegetable sides and a perfectly paired starch followed by a plated dessert.
Then we all sit down to share wonderful stories of the day along with the food.
Q: Tell us about the photography in Rocky Mountain Cooking, a mix of stunning images of the Rockies and fabulous food shots.
A: I was so fortunate to work with Shallon Cunningham of Salt Food Photography. Sylvia Kong from The Savory Palate did the food styling. There’s a great story behind every single picture for me. The glorious mountain photography can be accredited to Roger Laurilla, Noel Rogers and Paul Zizka.
Q: Your red lentil, carrot and coconut soup is now a staple at my house. What are you making from your latest cookbook at home?
A: I admit the French Toast Casserole with Streusel is an all-time favourite. And because I’m trying to eat less animal protein, the Killer Vegetarian Chili is on a pretty steady rotation.
Q: How do you describe yourself? A freelance chef who consults and cooks at various backcountry lodges in B.C. and Alberta?
A: I describe myself as “sometimes available.” [Laughs.]
Backcountry lodges are always on the lookout for chefs and, in normal times, the seasons fill up quickly so some lodges start looking for chefs a full year in advance.
Last year, I worked with Talus Lodge and Meadow Lodge and I did some private catering. But I’ve also worked in the past for others — including Skoki, of course, and Assiniboine, Shadow Lake and Mistaya.
Q: You’re based in Golden, B.C. and are now co-owner at the local Bacchus Café. Do you still spend as much time as possible playing in the great outdoors?
A: I try to get out every single day. I feel angst if I end my day and haven’t been outside, even if it’s just for a calming walk or short ski. It’s the same when I’m away, cooking in the backcountry. When I’m out in the mountains, I feel at peace.
*A special thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for giving us permission to share the food photos published in this story.