Monday, April 12, 2010

Me & Ted: Cooking at Ted Turner's Ladder Ranch Pt1/2

As I announced last week, I had the opportunity to cook at Ted Turner's Ladder Ranch this past weekend. Prior to the event I had little information about the job except that the primary purpose was to expose a Conde Nast Traveler writer to New Mexico's ecotourism initiative. I had been recommended based on local participants in the planning process, but the primary coordination was up in Santa Fe. It was clearly a job I couldn't refuse.

The participants included:
Katie Arnold (Writer and former Managing Editor of Outside magazine)
Ryan Heffernan (Photographer)
Ziggy Bergman (Videographer)
Chip and Sandy Cunningham (EcoTourism New Mexico)
Dave Stanton (EcoTourism New Mexico)
Joe Saenz (Apache guide)
Joe Kenneally (Local outfitter)
Bill West (Birding guide)
Nathan Small (Local environmentalist and Las Cruces City Council member)
Gary Emerson (Astronomy guide)
Steve Dobrott (Ladder Ranch manager)
This list changed throughout the weekend to capitalize on photoshoots, weather, travel, etc..

I learned quickly that this was a jam-packed weekend meant to show the reporting team as much as possible, and to allow the EcoNM team to film a marketing video for potential investors. What that means to the lowly chef was - be prepared to change everything at the drop of a dime and be dressed for photo ops at all hours.

I had my typical late start leaving town to drive over to the ranch. Last minute shopping and packing my entire kitchen, while my staff continued to serve lunch, was more challenging than I wanted it to be. The coordinator didn't have an arrival time for me, just a dinner time so my late start was fine except it meant I was a bit hurried when I finally did arrive.

The Ladder Ranch is really something amazing. I'll let you google it yourself, but the short version is that media mogul, Ted Turner, is the single largest land owner in the western half of the US. He uses his land purchases to entertain himself with hunting and fishing, but more importantly, he implements aggressive conservation efforts. I'm not at liberty to discuss two such efforts, but they're fairly well known in the search engine world. I'll also add that TT shares his land very generously with researchers, educators, youth groups as well as the slew of uber rich hunters, so this is no stingy rich man's folly.

(Ranch HQ and Lodge)
Talking with Steve Dobrott it was clear that the mission of TT and his ranches is to create ecologically friendly, but financially viable operations.

(View from the Lodge front porch)
So when I arrived I threw all of my tools and books and clothes and stale Ritz crackers in the kitchen so I could get cranking on dinner. At every interlude, I took time to organize and throw the Ritz back in the truck for Tyler's next snack moment. That night I cooked until midnight shifting from dinner to prep for the next day.

I finally hit the sack around 12:30 and had a very unrestful night.

By my estimation this should have been the night to set the tone. I was saying to myself, "You hired me for what I am, so I'm gonna give it to you." That meant - locally sourced, fancy and playful, and damn tasty! So on night one I went to my current standard of blue corn pork belly tacos. I started the night with my New Mexico fields amuse bouche, green chile corn chowder, local greens with chilied prickly pear tuna, and wrapped up with peanut butter pie.

(My superstar assistant Debbie)
I ran into my recurring problem of the pork belly being a bit too salty (I've since diagnosed the problem and it will be fixed this week), but otherwise everything was very well received especially the chowder and salad.

I was too rushed to worry about such things during dinner, but after dinner I realized that they were seating everyone in a room that was too dark for the photographer to capture my food. I was bummed, but he got plenty of pics of my lunches, teas, sundowners and final meal, so I wasn't too disappointed.

Starting at 5 the next morning, I was back at it and working on a breakfast of baked goods - scones, biscotti and yogurt parfaits with pop-rocks - for my foodie readers, for my parfaits I always strain my yogurt overnight in a mesh strainer to thicken it similar to Greek yogurt.

The team came back from morning birding to snack, then they were off to see the bison. Left behind, I moved on to lunch.

Lunch was a set photo op. Imagine a warm spring New Mexico day alongside a trickling creek full of brisk snow melt.

Lunch is served on a large woven rug abound with fluffy pillows and leather chairs. Perfect for the photographer, but no one wanted to sit on it because we were all the workers and that's where the guests go...but everyone was a worker - kinda awkward.

I sat my rear down to lead the way! Lunch was chicken wraps filled with basil pesto, feta, piñon and local greens. I also blasted them with my popular brownies.

Alongside I made foot-long potato chips seasoned with vanilla and bottarga.

The lunch photo shoot continued as they raced me back to HQ on the back of a 4-wheeler ATV to start on afternoon tea. Now for perspective, it took us 90 minutes to get from HQ to the photo shoot - this is a huge ranch! Tea was yuzu madeleines.

The guests were getting bloated at this point and were starting to refuse food, but I forced them to eat since that's why I was there. Tea transitioned to the guests exploring Indian ruins, then back for evening sundowner.

In Africa, the sundowner tradition is an imperialist tradition. As the sun sets, you gather with friends and family for a cocktail and light snack. Their snack tonight - fresh pretzels and mustard. Huge success - people raved...but again were getting really stuffed. I also had a comment in passing from the ranch manager about the scarcity of protein, so I adjusted.

(I used Balinese pyramid salt for the pretzels)
Dinner featured savory avocado ice cream with mesquite blini, chayote soup with cilantro crema, bison heart salad, clay coated purple potato, chicken molé crêpes and green apple mousse with a shot of my nocino. There wasn't a miss on the whole menu! The blini and soup were a great combo although some people tasted only the cilantro foam and didn't realize the yumminess was underneath. The heart salad has proven to be one of my top dishes at the restaurant and will be hard to remove. The potatoes were fun albiet a bit too strange for some, but the clay and squid ink coating tastes so good with those creamy purple spuds.

My chicken molé continues to be my top lunch seller for a reason and that nocino has aged so nicely. I can't wait to taste in in the coming year (its about to turn one year old).

After dinner the group was off to star gaze. I was able to join them since my ranch provided assistant was so incredibly efficient and hard working. This was my first escape from the kitchen and it was worth it. First, Steve howled to the wolves and sure enough they howled right back. Then Gary showed us a bunch of little white dots in his telescope with statements like, "That one is 50 million light years away." I was less than impressed. But when he showed us Saturn and the rings were clear as could be - wow!

(Me looking very tired after dinner)
Back to do some last minute prep and then in bed just after midnight. Back up at 5 to get at it again. Sunday was a hearty breakfast burrito with Niman Ranch bacon and our local Salsa Patria in a whole wheat tortilla. I whipped up my favorite pop-tarts just for Ryan since he enjoyed the nostalgia of my pop-rocks. And boy did they love those pop-tarts! I had to then pack up the entire kitchen to move over to the Hermosa ghost town.

Click HERE for the rest of the story...


Sharlene T. said...

Phew! I'm exhausted just reading what you accomplished. Don't remove the heart salad from your menu -- it keeps you unique and the folks walking through the door. Until, of course, the competition starts depleting your supplies! You fix very interesting combinations and you're going to be very successful. Come visit, when you can...

Manggy said...

You mean - there's more to the story?? Gosh, I'm glad you came back in one piece! (You did, didn't you?)
You totally blasted them.. with your talent. Well done.

racheld said...

Wow. No more words---it feels as if you turned out banquets with a stick-and-a-fire kitchen, which I know ain't so, but rustic adds such charm.

OHHH, the salad. And the brownies. And if there's a tutorial to be had, please let it be the Gucci chips. And someday just a picture of the purple potatoes in their fancy cloaks.

racheld said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lady Katherine said...

Wow! I had so much fun reading about all the food you cooked, I have to say the Madeleine and the potato chips I adored! What an honor,lot of work and fun! Loved seeing this post! I enjoyed it so much.