Tag Archives: Yosemite National Park

THIRTY YEARS OF CHEFS’ HOLIDAYS

There’s no recipe in this post or much discussion of food. Honestly, I just wanted a chance to show some of my images from our recent visit to the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite National Park is one of the true gems of the national park system in the United States. It was viewed as a treasure by the Native Americans who lived in it, and by early settlers and prospectors. Even shortly after gold rush days, there were efforts to protect Yosemite Valley. In fact, it celebrates its 125th anniversary as a national park this year. If you have visited the park, you know what a special and magical place it is (sans other tourists, if you could wish it). If you have never visited, it is a must on your list of places to visit.

The Ahwahnee Hotel, by itself, is a place that deserves its own spot on your list. The hotel was opened in 1927 at a cost approaching $2 million – a huge sum in those days. The story is that earlier lodging in the park could best be described as “rustic”. Many wealthy tourists including Lady Astor refused to visit because of the primitive conditions. For that reason the hotel was envisioned for that clientele. It was built in a grand style but in a fashion that blended into the beautiful mountain surroundings. Fearful of fires that had already destroyed more than one national park lodge, the builders used reinforced concrete stained to resemble California redwood. Even today, the eye of the visitor will be fooled by the exterior of the building.

Of course, the hotel has been modernized to remain attractive to demanding guests, but many of the original details including giant fireplaces, intricate woodwork, artwork, detailed floors, and even wooden ice chests on each guest wing have been preserved. The main dining hall is in the impressive style of many of the classic national park lodges. The food is definitely a cut above the fare in other national park lodges.

Most agree that the best time for a visit to Yosemite and the Ahwahnee is in the spring when the many waterfalls are at full flow. Next-best may be the autumn with colorful foliage and Indian Summer weather. Summer is beautiful with the only downside being the wall-to-wall humans.

Winter is clearly the low season. Snows can be fierce, and more than one visitor has gotten lost and frozen during an ill-conceived hike. The plus side is that there are many fewer visitors. That has posed a problem for the famous Ahwahnee Hotel. Unlike many of the grand old hotels of the national parks, the Ahwahnee stays open all winter, so it needs to attract as many guests as possible. They do that with various special activities.

The Bracebridge Dinner is a tradition that goes back to the first year that the hotel was opened. The dinner is a festive occasion with English period costumes, entertainments, and foods. It is extremely popular and becomes oversubscribed very early.

The Vintners’ Holiday is a gathering of thirty or more California vintners and guests who talk about things wine-related and wind up with a festive dinner complete with carefully paired wines.

For the past 30 years, the hotel has been sponsoring its Chefs’ Holiday. There are back-to-back sessions that run through January and early February. This year, there will be a delay of a few hours on Super Bowl Sunday so that football fans/food enthusiasts will not need to miss either event.

The Chefs’ Holiday attracts many well-known chefs and food writers, predominantly from California, but actually from all around. This is the second year for Sarah and Evan, but other chefs and writers include Kent Rathbun from Abacus in Dallas, Nancy Silverton and Mary Sue Milliken from Los Angeles, as well as Duskie Estes, Elizabeth Faulkner, and Zoi Antonitsas of television competitive cooking fame.

Guest chefs provide a short demonstration of one of their signature dishes and then host a tasting. Each session ends with an elaborate dinner prepared by the chefs, complete with carefully paired California wines.

It is fair to say that the Ahwahnee staff  is doing their part to assure a successful winter season in Yosemite.

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ANOTHER YEAR IN YOSEMITE – PLANCHA BREAD

It has been nearly a year since I last reported from Yosemite. Sarah and Evan have been invited again to demonstrate the preparation of one of their dishes and to prepare a dinner at the Ahwahnee Hotel.

During the past year, things have changed in our family and with the park. Last year, Sarah was trying to cook while 8+ months pregnant. This year we were charged with watching a nearly four year old and a 10 month old while Sarah cooks.

The park is still suffering from the results of last summer’s fires. There are great stands of blackened tree skeletons, and huge logging trucks are pulling enormous tree trunk s down the road.  The drought and warm weather have both had their impact: there is no snow, and Yosemite Falls, usually frozen by this time of year, are without ice. In the Central Valley below, the reservoirs are nearly empty. Everyone is hoping for the rains and snows that don’t appear to be coming.

Perhaps the biggest current news is the successful climb of  the Dawn Wall of El Capitan by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson. Sarah and Evan’s demonstration was interrupted by the announcement, and since then the hotel has been abuzz with the news. All of the television networks appeared with cameras and had the climbers get up at 4 AM (After being on a sheer rock face for 19 days.) to give interviews for Good Morning America, Today, etc.

Today, Susan and I took a drive while Sarah, Evan, and the boys were taking a walk – the first time they have had a chance to get out of the hotel and the kitchen.

Our drive took us past El Capitan. There were still three bivouac tents hanging from the Dawn Wall, and there was a huge traffic jam of television trucks in the meadow where Caldwell and Jorgeson were giving yet more interviews. Then we drove past Bridal Veil Falls to the Tunnel View Point to get an obligate image of the whole valley including El Capitan and Bridal Veil Falls with Half Dome in the background. It is a cliché image, but it is so breathtaking that you can’t avoid it. Neither could a big crowd of people even in the middle of winter.

Tonight, Sarah and Evan will serve a wonderful dinner to include aged duck lasagna and an almond-chocolate dessert.

here’s the menu:

  • Onion soup: radish and dried plum salsa verde, fried shallots
  • Aged duck lasagna: chickories
  • Bone marrow roasted cauliflower: kumquat
  • New York strip steak: lemon verbena curry, pommes fondant
  • Bittersweet chocolate ganache: marshmallow fluff, citrus

But I thought I would share recipes from their demonstration:

 

RECIPES

Rich Table Plancha Bread

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons dry yeast
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup bread flour
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons Sevillano olive oil

Method

  1. Mix together the water, yeast, honey, and olive oil.
  2. Add flour and salt to the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the dough hook, add the wet to the dry ingredients and mix to form a ball.
  3. Keep the dough in the mixing bowl and wrap the whole thing with plastic wrap. Let dough proof in a warm area of the kitchen for one hour.
  4. Once the dough has proofed, divide it into 70 g balls. Roll each ball out into an oblong about 1/4 inch thick.
  5. On a griddle or large cast iron pan heated to medium-high and seasoned with oil, sear each flat bread, cooking and browning on both sides.

Roasted Baby Cauliflower Dip

Ingredients

  •  1 head baby cauliflower
  • 3 tablespoons butter, browned and reserved
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • salt to taste

Method

  1. Clean cauliflower to remove most of the greens leaves and stem. Cut in half.
  2. Blanch cauliflower in boiling salted water until jus tender
  3. Sear the blanched cauliflower on a griddle or heavy cast iron pan until golden. Then bake in a 350 degree F oven until tender.
  4. Season cauliflower with lemon juice, brown butter, and salt. Puree if desired or serve as is.

Shelling Bean Dip

Ingredients

  • 1 pound fresh cranberry beans
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3-4 tablespoons pure olive oil
  • salt to taste
  • 1 teaspoon Douglas fir powder
  • 1 teaspoon fennel pollen

Method

  1. Cook cranberry beans in water with bay leaves until soft. Strain beans and reserve the cooking water
  2. In a mixing bowl, season the beans with pure olive oil (e.g. Mission Trail from Sciabica), some of the reserved cooking water, salt, Douglas fir powder, and fennel pollen.
  3. Using a fork, mash everything together until the desired texture is reached. The puree should be as smooth as hummus.

Note: With both dips, you can spread them on pieces of reheated plancha bread and garnish with tiny cauliflower florets or thinly sliced radishes and caramelized finely sliced shallot.

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YOSEMITE AND THE AHWAHNEE HOTEL’S CHEFS’ HOLIDAY

One of my activities during the recent hiatus from my blog was a child-sitting assignment in Yosemite National Park. (A rough chore, I admit.) Our daughter and son-in-law had accepted an invitation to participate in the Ahwahnee Hotel’s annual Chefs’ Holiday. They did a cooking demonstration of two of their most popular dishes and then cooked a sit-down dinner for around 150 enthusiastic diners.

Of course, everyone knows about the magic of Yosemite National Park. The scenery is so gorgeous that you cannot avoid a gasp when you first see it. The crashing cascades, still water, towering monoliths, and beautiful meadows are spectacular.  Ansel Adams’s  black and white images are classics that less talented photographers like me try to imitate.

Click on image to view gallery

The Ahwahnee Hotel is less well-known although it has been there since the 1920s. The story goes that an aristocrat from England came around the turn of the twentieth century to take in the beauty of the Valley, and there was no lodging up to her standards or expectation. Thus, plans were developed to build a hotel that would suit the most discriminating visitor.  The hotel was built in a secluded meadow with a singular view of Half Dome; it was built of redwood-stained concrete so as to avoid the fires that had destroyed so many of the classic national park lodges of the time. There were lots of amenities, too, with a large staff, beautiful dining room, and comfortable guest rooms. Over the years, the hotel has been well maintained and remains the place where park visitors go when they want to feel a little pampered.

Our first night arrival was late, so we ordered drinks and bar food in the handsome Ahwahnee Bar. The food was good, but inexplicably the chili (in the western United States) was served Cincinnati-style with lots of cloves, cinnamon, and allspice. OK, but not my favorite.

Click on image to view gallery

During the tourist season, Yosemite is well known to be a crowded place, but in the winter there are many fewer visitors. This makes it wonderful to see and photograph the various sights, and it also affords the hotel the opportunity to sponsor some special events. The oldest is the Bracebridge Dinner which is held during the Christmas season and features an English banquet along with costumed players and singers. The Vintners’ Holiday highlights some of the most famous California vineyards and wines. The Chefs’ Holiday attracts well-known chefs and food experts from all over the country for cooking classes and unique dinners in the beautiful dining room.

Click on image to view gallery

Sarah and Evan demonstrated two of the most popular dishes at their San Francisco restaurant, Rich Table: porcini-dusted donuts with a fluffy raclette sauce and sardine chips accompanied by horseradish sauce. Then with the help of the kitchen staff rom the hotel, they prepared a several-course dinner and wine-pairing for 150 people.

Click on image to view gallery

While Sarah and Evan were working, Grandma and Grandpa were obliged to take care of the three-year-old. That meant walks to landmarks, playing in the fresh snow, and observing a herd of beautiful – and tame – deer. It was a most enjoyable task in a beautiful place with few tourists.

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