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Adventures of a backcountry gourmet

Watch Alberta’s Skoki Lodge Chef Katie Mitzel tell how she creates a gourmet experience in the backcountry.

By Lawrence Herzog

Katie Mitzel joyfully remembers the July day the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (aka Will and Kate) arrived at historic Skoki Lodge in the remote wilderness of Banff National Park. “As soon as I met the princess, she said: ‘Hey, you’re Kate, I’m Kate. Just call me Kate.’”

They wanted to be treated like any other Skoki guests, Mitzel says.

The comfort and warm welcome at the high alpine lodge come as sweet reward after a rigorous hike or ski 11 kilometres from the Lake Louise trailhead – the only way in and out. So too does Mitzel’s bountiful and healthy gourmet cooking.

FW-Skoki-spolight-gallery05Packing appetites sharpened from the bracing Rockies air and the heart-pounding exertion climbing up and over two steep passes, Skoki’s guests are primed with a true hunger to eat big and eat well….with dishes like pork tenderloin marinade, ginger and sesame salmon with prawns, and killer chili with chorizo sausage.

“I have played around with the chili a zillion times and have found that the combination of sweet and spicy, Old World meets New World, is perfect and even more satisfying with fresh bread.” She hand-makes eight to 10 loaves a day, and her signature is a molasses bread with caraway and fennel.

“I think the remoteness of the Skoki kitchen has impacted my cooking by encouraging me to become a stronger cook. Each shift, season and day offers new and unique challenges that for me keep the job interesting and evolving.”

When royalty came to visit, a la carte selections included Alaskan halibut with creamy boursin and fried capers, Alberta beef tenderloin, butternut squash, roasted potatoes with candied pecans and almonds, and prawns in a sweet Thai chili glaze. “Prince William really liked the beef and the Amazon chocolate cake he chose for dessert,” she says. “He asked for seconds.”

Satisfying all the big appetites consumes a lot of food, and the off-the-grid lodge has two propane fridges, two freezers, propane stoves, and a pantry of nutritious food staples. When cold weather hits, the pantry needs to be emptied at night so the food doesn’t freeze.

Supplies are all transported up the trail – by horseback in summer, and snowmobile in winter – the precious cargo swaddled in duvets and warmed with hot water bottles. She’s a master menu planner by necessity. “Everything is ordered over a handheld radiophone. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

When it doesn’t, she has been known to ski out to the trailhead in the morning, retrieve her supplies, ski back in the afternoon, and then prepare dinner for the guests. “It’s a challenge, and yet the challenge is what makes it all so fulfilling.”

Katie Mitzel’s top tips

  • Organize, organize, organize. Carefully plan your menus, time your orders by watching inventory, keep an eye on quality and dietary needs of your guests.
  • Become adept at adapting and using what is available. When your location is remote or your supplies unpredictable, look to root vegetables for their longevity.
  • Hire staff who answer the call of the wild. A well-run kitchen team helps your clients unwind and savour the backcountry experience.
  • Go for big flavours. When cooking for guests who have been outdoors all day, get their attention with food that stands up and sings.