Living in the mountains at an elevation of 2000m you might think bread would rise super easy. Unsurprisingly baking is a little different at altitude. Dessert recipes I’ve tested in Vancouver in my home kitchen at sea level behave completely differently at Lake O’Hara and often require modified quantities of leavening agents, different baking time and temperatures. I have learned that it is important to test recipes written for a low altitude environment at home before the season begins so I have a starting point to adjust them from when I arrive. It takes a lot of patience to figure out how to make a beloved recipe work consistently up at altitude. We continue to build a growing archive of tested and loved recipes we can draw upon those we know work well for us up at O’Hara.
Arriving at O’Hara that first summer
Five years ago I arrived at Lake O’Hara Lodge, in Yoho National Park, as the Sous Chef. It was a location which was dear to me having spent numerous visits with my family hiking its trails. Returning to be part of the kitchen team was exciting and brought with it numerous challenges. Fast forward after a hiatus back in Vancouver cooking for a couple of years, I arrived back at O’Hara for my first winter and as the head Chef this past January. Bouncing along on the back of the skidoo we headed into the lodge. Not sure what I might face as we unwrapped the lodge from its slumber; perhaps snow past the windows, animals ransacking the kitchen or kitchen tools that I thought I remembered, were actually a figment of my imagination. Fortunately there were no real surprises. The weather was cooperative; I had heard horror stories in the past of trying to open the lodge in -30 temperatures when pipes would freeze even before the water really started flowing or buildings that took a week to warm up. That wasn’t the case this year so I hunkered down and started getting prepped for staff arriving and our first winter guests who would be expecting wonderful meals in 4 days time.
My professional background is in urban fine dining restaurants, and I need to continuously maintain a sense of humor regarding the unique set of challenges we face working in such a remote place, particularly during our winter ski season at the lodge. In the city I am accustomed to receiving a number of orders a day from various suppliers. A supplier can replace unsatisfactory product or correct an oversight the following day, if not the same day. Some suppliers provide two deliveries a day, so an overlooked item is usually not too much of a concern. During our winter season our orders are delivered once a week to the bottom of our road and met by one of our snow machines. Depending on the temperature and snow conditions on the road, setting out to pick up the order and getting it back up is a process that can take up to several hours. Today a fifty-pound box of carrots meant for another lodge in Yoho ended up in our order and it’s taken three phone conversations to figure out how to resolve the situation. Not the same as having a truck pull up in the alley! Suppliers need to be patient and accommodating with the needs of a backcountry operation, and I need to think my orders through very carefully every week.
The perfect Setting to create in
I feel spoiled by an unusually bright sunny kitchen here at the lodge. After four full summer and fall seasons and my first winter season this year I have yet to stop noticing the quality of light I get in my workplace. City kitchens are typically fluorescent-lit boxes that very seldom have any natural light, and aside from the flow of service you have no awareness of the day passing by. Dawn alpine glow hits Odaray right around the time I’m about to serve breakfast and I notice it every day. When I’m scrubbing pots in the pot sink I have what might just be the most beautiful dishwashing view in all of Canada.
Working mostly alone during the winter season means that I always need to actively plan time to get outside. It’s easy for the days to slip by without making it out there, as there is always work to be done in a kitchen. It often takes Bruce or Alison kicking me outside or my co-workers dragging me off to squeeze in a quick ski. It’s much easier to get out every day during the summer season because it’s so easy to get in a quick hike.
I love that I have more of a connection to the people I’m cooking for here at the lodge than in the anonymous milieu of city restaurant cooking. The best chefs cook because they are called to it, and the rewards are personal with very little feedback from the people they are cooking for. I love that I get to talk to people about food and discuss recipes up here. If you ever want to chat, stop me on a trail or, ask to see me and I’ll come out from the kitchen and say hi! Now I am off to start planning the menu at Lake O’Hara for this coming summer. Happy trails!
Jess Collins will be returning to Lake O’Hara Lodge as our Chef after a previous four year stint as our Sous Chef. When not at Lake O’Hara, she calls Vancouver home where she has worked at the Commodore Ballroom, Blue Water Cafe, Burdock & Co, and the Red Wagon.