After my freshman year of college, I decided to take the plunge and follow my dreams, so to speak. As odd as it may sound, I’ve always wanted to work at a dude ranch. In elementary school, my mom took my brother and I to Elk Mountain Ranch, a family ranch nestled in the mountains of Buena Vista, Colorado.
When visiting with my family, I’d get up when the 6 am generator kicked on and run to the kitchen to “work” with my friend Hannah, who I met at Elk Mountain (I’m still amazed that eight-year-old me was willing to wake up that early). I’d be assigned “important” tasks like dicing up tomatoes for the evening salad or carving the ranch logo onto pats of butter for the breakfast pancakes. The kitchen staff made me feel like their special helper, and that rush I got from working in a busy kitchen was something I remembered well into my time at college.
Lacking plans for the summer, I applied for the open chef position at Elk Mountain and landed the job. Little did I know how much time and energy I’d devote to my work and just how much four months crammed in a kitchen in the middle of nowhere would change me.
You’re probably reading this because you have no idea what actually happens at a dude ranch, much less what goes on in the kitchen. In truth, miracles happen.
Okay, not really. But one time I burned four slabs of brisket (AKA $200 worth of cow) and my boss managed to salvage the meat, which to this day is the most miraculous feat I’ve ever witnessed. But I digress…
What’s it like being the chef at a dude ranch? It’s hard work. My typical day started around 6 am when the generator was switched back on and I could start the morning coffee. Breakfast usually wasn’t until 8 or 8:30, which gave me enough time to start on the afternoon’s tasks before turning on the grill to make whatever was on the menu for the morning. This was when I got a lot of my prep work done; I’d prep the stuffing for that night’s turkey dinner or start mixing the cake batter so it’d be ready to be popped in the oven as soon as the breakfast dishes were washed.
After inhaling my breakfast, I’d crank out as much food as possible so I could squeeze in an afternoon walk before the dinner rush started. Whether I was peeling a box of apples for some homemade applesauce or baking a month’s worth of pumpkin bread to stash in the freezer, I had plenty to keep me busy.
What people often don’t realize about running a kitchen at a dude ranch is just how much preparation and planning goes into crafting the week’s meals. To make the meals, you have to have a set meal plan. To have a set meal plan, you have to have the right ingredients. To get the ingredients, you need to give the food truck your order far enough in advance for them to pack the truck. The list goes on, but there’s a lot of thinking that has to be done to make sure the weeks flow smoothly.
I suppose now is the perfect time to mention that I am not superwoman and most definitely did not do all the prep work by myself. I had an awesome boss, Sue, who did all the logistics for the food orders and kept us all from running around like chickens with our heads cut off.
Each meal was a circus of wait staff members rushing around to do the last of the food and table prep, with me standing somewhat awkwardly in the middle tossing food onto platters and hoping it looked somewhat artsy and presentable (just because my food is delicious doesn’t mean it’s pretty, #noshame).
The kitchen was my life at Elk Mountain. I spent most of my time cooking, and when I wasn’t cooking, I was usually talking to whoever had wandered in to get a snack. I learned how to bake pies, salvage over-salted mashed potatoes, and make the world’s best homemade Oreo ice cream. I also learned how to wax the kitchen floor and properly sanitize dirty pans, but those are the skills that no one really wants to hear about, for whatever reason.
What you really have to understand about being the chef at a dude ranch is that I wasn’t just “the cook.” I was the cook, the cleaning crew, the wait staff, the spare kids counselor, and a wannabe wrangler (I still don’t know anything about horses, by the way). And it wasn’t just me who wore multiple hats, everyone did. That’s just how it works at a dude ranch: everyone does everything.
The staff at Elk Mountain was its own special family for one summer, and, yes, by the end of the summer, we squabbled like a real family too. But that’s just how it is when you work at a ranch, and I really wouldn’t have it any other way.
Here’s what I want you to take away from this article: the work I did in Elk Mountain’s kitchen wasn’t just cooking, it was creating. Every day, I had to plan meals to accommodate special diets, think of yummy new desserts, and really just figure out how I could make the guests the happiest. I gave 110% every day, and the staff and guests gave every bit of that back and more.
At the risk of sounding like an infomercial, working at Elk Mountain Ranch was the toughest, most rewarding job I’ve ever had. I’m so glad I had the guts to just get out there and pursue my dream job, if only for one summer. Those long days spent cooking my little heart out are some of my favorite memories, and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone at Elk Mountain for making 2014 a summer I’ll never forget.