Adventures of a backcountry gourmet
Originally published in Flavours magazine, April 2, 2013
Katie Mitzel joyfully remembers the July day the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (AKA Will and Kate) arrived at 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 just like any other Skoki guests, Mitzel says. Which as it turns out, is like pampered backcountry royalty.
The comfort and warm welcome at the lodge come as sweet reward after a three- to five-hour hike or ski 11 kilometres from the Lake Louise trailhead. So too does Mitzel’s bountiful and healthy gourmet cooking. Packing 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.
Once boots are removed, she knocks their socks off with offerings 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.
Mitzel always presents a main course with a meat dish, different every day: grain-fed chicken, New Zealand lamb, Alberta beef, wild B.C. salmon, Alaskan halibut. “I like to fool around with items like Digby scallops and P.E.I. rock crabs to take me to the next level,” she explains.
Vegetables, too – lots of them! – like roast peppers, heirloom tomatoes with olive oil and a vinaigrette, and something au gratin. All of it prepared with fresh spices and herbs for good aesthetics and zesty flavour profiles. She’s big on soups and stews and comfort food. “It’s amazing what you can do when you puree vegetables, like butternut squash, and incorporate delicious meat leftovers. We are careful not to waste,” she says. Dinner at Skoki goes down pleasingly with a selection of Canadian wines and beer.
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.”
Breakfast and dinner at Skoki are served buffet style and lunch is a build-it-yourself buffet set out after breakfast. 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 that the food doesn’t freeze.
All of Mitzel’s kitchen supplies are 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.”
She’s become adept at adapting and using what is available, especially nearing the end of an order. “I stock a lot of root vegetables for their longevity: beets, squashes, pumpkins, onions. You can make them absolutely delicious, they have glorious colours, and they store a long time. You can take an onion and caramelize it, put it on top of something, and people think it is amazing.”
Katie manages the lodge with her husband, Leo, and theirs is a Rockies romance. “We met on the trail coming to the lodge,” she laughs. “I was skiing up Deception Pass, and he was on the Ski-doo. Two years later we were married and here we are, managing the lodge and raising our two kids together.”
The lodge at Skoki (an Ojibwa word meaning “swamp”) is a national historic site, built in 1930-31 by the Ski Club of the Canadian Rockies. It sits at an elevation of 2,164 metres (7,100 feet) and is perfectly situated for exploring nearby mountain ridges, lakes and the five adjoining valleys. It’s not as ideal for baking as rapid changes in barometric pressure and humidity create challenges in the kitchen. “You get to know the days that cakes are not going to be easy,” she says.
After 15 years at Skoki, Mitzel figures she has found her bit of heaven on earth. “We’re here as much for the hiking and the skiing as the lifestyle, and this place has the perfect combination.” Guests usually stay two nights in the summer and three or four nights in the winter, and by their second day they’re usually, as she puts it, “putty in our hands.”
Awed by the setting, inspired by the tranquility and invigorated by the cuisine, it’s understandable many just don’t want to leave.
How to Get There
Drive the Trans Canada Highway 184 kilometres west of Calgary to the Village of Lake Louise in Banff National Park. The trailhead is just east of the village near Temple Lodge. It’s an 11 kilometre hike or ski to Skoki Lodge. Reservations are required at the lodge, and meals are served only to overnight guests.
Katie Mitzel has assembled many of her best recipes into the just published Skoki Cookbook. www.skokicookbook.com.
© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.