It sounded too good to be true: the golds and greens of fall in southern Colorado; all the horseback riding, Jeep tours, fishing, swimming, hot-tubbing, biking and reading on the front porch of a private cabin you could stand; cowboy songs around a campfire with the stars looming ever so close above; not a cell phone in sight -- and a week's worth of meals cooked by some of the region's most talented chefs. But "Gourmet Week" at Powderhorn Guest Ranch turned out to be even better than it sounded.
When Greg Williams, owner of the guest ranch with his wife, Shelly, came up with the idea of combining the dude-ranch experience with cooking by top chefs, he didn't have a clue whether the concept would work. After all, he and Shelly had never done anything like it; former undercover narcotics cops from Detroit don't spend much time pairing foie gras with just the right pinot noir. But former undercover narcotics cops from Detroit don't usually run dude ranches, either. This past May, the Williamses sold everything they owned and moved from Michigan to Colorado, taking over an ailing guest ranch in Powderhorn (at 1525 County Road 27), situated at the edge of the Gunnison National Forest and 29 miles south of Gunnison itself. They promptly began fixing it up and trying to attract the sort of dudes interested in an authentic ranch environment.
By September, the affable Williamses had already acquired some top wranglers and excellent kitchen staffers. But for Gourmet Week, they added real culinary stars: chef David Oliveri and general manager Jeff Ouderkirk from the Denver Buffalo Company (1109 Lincoln Street); cookbook author Gwen Ashley Walters from Scottsdale, Arizona; Chris Bowie, who's cooked at several Colorado Springs restaurants, including La Petite Maison (1015 West Colorado Avenue), and who could teach the folks at Ombra (see review) a thing or two about Italian cooking; Sam Bracken, a former Denver chef (The Fort, Moondance) who brought his staff from Facing West, the wonderful restaurant he owns with his wife, Lisa, in nearby Lake City (5200 Snowmass Road); and Victor Matthews Jr., chef/owner of the Black Bear Restaurant at Pike's Pub (10375 Ute Pass Avenue, Green Mountain Falls).
Each chef (and his staff, if he brought helpers) cooked one day's breakfast, lunch and dinner -- they submitted menus in advance, and the Williamses paid for all of the ingredients with seemingly no eye toward food costs. In return for their participation, the chefs got the rest of the week off to take full advantage of the ranch's amenities, which ranged from hiking to sleeping in a lounge chair next to the pool to unbelievable meals. Some of the highlights: Sam Bracken's grilled salmon club sandwich and grilled elk tenderloin with blueberry sauce; Oliveri's Bronx Reuben and his buffalo quesadillas; Matthews's ostrich carpaccio with aged balsamic, his fresh gnocchi with a four-cheese cream sauce, and his roasted quail in a Chianti demi-glace; Walters's Colorado chicken cordon bleu with ginger-whipped sweet potatoes and her pear-and-sour-cherry crostada; and Bowie's ribollita, his homemade tortelloni stuffed with cream cheese, and the killer Gorgonzola he served with fruit.
Before the week was up, I'd also taken the twenty-mile trip to Lake City to dine at Facing West, which sits on top of a hill overlooking the lake. Lisa Bracken is a veteran of several Denver restaurants, most recently as manager at Briarwood Inn (1630 Eighth Street in Golden); she runs the front of Facing West with such grace and hospitality that I can't believe the Briarwood ever let her go. And once again I was bowled over by her husband's culinary flair. Must-haves from Sam Bracken's kitchen: creamy Rocky Mountain smoked trout spread ($10); succulent, rosemary-crusted twelve-ounce prime rib ($19); smoked half chicken with bacon-and-leek mashed potatoes ($16) and, of course, that elk in blueberry sauce ($28), which had been so good at the ranch that we had to taste it again. We finished off the meal with cinnamon-kissed peaches flambé ($5.95) and the best gourmet version of a brownie sundae ($5.95) in Colorado.
The dishes cooked by Walters, who used to manage a fly-fishing lodge in southwestern Montana, can't be had in any restaurant. But with her cookbooks, you can create those ginger-whipped sweet potatoes in your own kitchen. The Great Ranch Cookbook (Guest Ranch Link, $19.95), published two years ago, is a well-researched compilation of recipes from ranches in eight states, including Colorado; the beauty of these dishes lies in the simplicity of their preparation. Walters also has a new book coming out in a few weeks: The Cool Mountain Cookbook (Guest Ranch Link, $19.95), which features recipes from ski resorts. You can take a look at both on her Web site, penandfork.com.
The next Gourmet Week at Powderhorn Guest Ranch is scheduled for September 9, 2001, but the Williamses are already taking reservations (call 1-800-786-1220 or log on to powderhornguestranch.com).
Meanwhile, back at the ranch: Powderhorn promises the same lineup of chefs at next year's Gourmet Week -- and presumably that includes David Oliveri, even though word came down Monday that the Denver Buffalo Company will change hands in mid-November, moving from founder Will MacFarlane to Boulder Concepts Restaurant Group, operators of both Bella Ristorantes, Cucina Leone and other eateries. The sale includes the restaurant complex, the Buffalo Company's Coors Field outlets and its offsite catering facilities -- Oliveri and Ouderkirk are staying with the restaurant, too, which will keep its Western theme -- but not New West Foods, a Denver wholesaler of buffalo and game. Also not included in the deal: the great, creaky-floored Buffalo Restaurant in Idaho Springs.
Rumors had been rife that the Buffalo Company might be sold, although when I reviewed the restaurant (and raved about Oliveri's cooking) just over a month ago ("Where's the Bison?" August 31), managers there denied that anything was up. Another clue came late last month, however, when the wholesaler portion of the business (beefed up this year with MacFarlane's purchase of Game Colorado) changed its name to New West Foods. From now on, MacFarlane will be focusing his energies on that end of the culinary game, with a goal of getting New West products in 1,000 retail outlets before the end of the year. Yee-ha.
October 5-7: The 19th Annual Great American Beer Festival. Over 1,500 beers, ales, porters and stouts available for tasting; $30 per day in advance, $36 at the door. Colorado Convention Center, 700 14th Street, 303-447-0126 or gabf.org.
October 8-9: Governor's Symposium Celebrating Colorado Cuisine, hosted by the American Culinary Federation, with educational seminars, cooking demos, culinary competitions and an awards dinner cooked by ten chefs from across the state (and focusing on ingredients produced in Colorado). Program and dinner, $100 in advance, Keystone Resort Conference Center, 303-308-1611.
October 15: Fall Rendezvous at The Fort. Tenth annual celebration of the early West, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Festivities include mountain men in authentic 1840s attire, a marketplace, food booths, competitions and demonstrations; admission free. The Fort, 19192 Route 8, Morrison, 303-697-4771.
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