Beyond the picturesque town of Banff, Alta., through two passes in the Rocky Mountains and around a spring-fed turquoise lake is a remote cabin in the woods, where gourmet meals are prepared without electricity or running water.
In a world where chefs are obsessed with seeking the next big food trend, chef Katie Mitzel is taking guests back in time, serving up three delicious meals a day from her rustic mountain kitchen at Skoki Lodge.
Nestled in Banff National Park, Skoki Lodge is a National Historic site that was built in 1930, making it Canada’s first ski lodge. Situated 11 km from any road, the hike-in lodge has been maintained as it was first built; its log cabins and family-style, candle-lit dining service make it a place to connect with nature, friends and food.
To say Chef Mitzel’s kitchen is off the grid is an understatement. Cut off from modern amenities and without electricity, much is made by hand, including the bread — Mitzel kneads 16 loaves every morning, starting at 5 a.m.
Dishes are washed by hand with water that’s hauled from a nearby glacier-fed creek, and boiled. The log cabin kitchen is lit by natural light in the summer, and propane lamps in winter.
“If you are doing fine knife work, sometimes you have to wear a head lamp,” says Mitzel. “And you always want to have a lighter in your pocket because you are constantly having to light things.”
Skoki Lodge’s stoves, fridge and freezer run on propane, turning out fantastic meals like pork tenderloin with creamy herb sauce, ginger and sesame salmon, and velvety butternut squash soup.
But the lodge is still at the mercy of Mother Nature when it comes to getting supplies. There are no phones to order deliveries, so planning is key. Once a week, Mitzel uses the lodge radio to call in items. Sometimes the radio cuts out and she has to go into town to make her order.
“I don’t think a lot of hotel [chefs] would ski, like, 28 kilometers to do a food order,” says Mitzel. Once the order is placed, it is either brought in by snowmobile in the winter or by pack horse in summer. Despite the extra steps required, the remote location fuels Mitzel’s creative juices and inspires her menu.
“Being outdoors, looking at the different colours and the different textures of the landscape, I am able to bring that back into the kitchen and implement that into my food,” says Mitzel.
For instance, she uses edible flowers on cakes to give them “that rustic gourmet kind of feeling.”
The challenges of a 1930’s style kitchen also inspires her creativity. Leftover veggies become soup and mushy berries are transformed into coulis. Minimizing food waste is essential in Mitzel’s kitchen as there are no dumpsters, and all garbage must be flown out.
Mitzel’s creativity has helped Skoki uphold its reputation as a gourmet getaway, attracting guests like Prince William and Kate Middleton, who visited the lodge in 2011. Middleton told Mitzel that they chose to stay at Skoki because of its reputation and remote location.
“Talk about being gracious and so kind,” says Mitzel, who pulled out all the stops for the royal couple, preparing a AAA Alberta beef tenderloin for the Prince, and Alaskan halibut for the Duchess. She also made her famous green salad with multi-coloured grape tomatoes and ginger dressing. There was also king crab puff pastry with avocado and green onion, and tiger prawns in sweet chili glaze. For dessert, she served chocolate cake with raspberry coulis and Canada Day cheesecake.
The couple revelled in the secluded location, and after a long day of hiking in the mountains, ate everything Mitzel prepared.
“Kate said it was really important to them that they were just Skoki guests when they were here,” says Mitzel.
“We base a lot of our reputation on our food,” says Mitzel, who recently wrote The Skoki Cookbook after years of fielding guests’ requests for her recipes. The cookbook is a sneak peak into Mitzel’s mind and palate, inspired by magazines, the restaurants she visits while on break from the lodge, and above all, her passion for nature.
It’s that passion and creativity that inspires guests to make the five hour hike back to the lodge year after year.