Note: I wrote this in 2010 after having met Bourdain at a book signing. Unfortunately, Anthony Bourdain left us in 2018 by suicide and I’m struggling with this post because it seems irrelevant now. But at the same time I keep phone numbers of friends who have died on my phone so I have difficulty deleting this post.
With Anthony Bourdain coming to Salt Lake City this week to promote his new book, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook (Ecco/HarperCollins. ISBN 0061718947), I wondered if it was possible to kidnap him and show him Utah. If so, where would I take him to avoid the classic pitfalls of fry sauce, green Jell-O, and funeral potatoes? Considering his show, No Reservations, travels to obscure locations on the globe where he partakes in the local traditions and eats the local fare, stateside this could be challenging. Clearly, some sort of adventure or tradition that leaves a pleasant imprint of Utah without seeming too generic is necessary.
It would be important to showcase the uniqueness of southern Utah. An abundance of national parks and breathtaking scenery certainly would be noteworthy to such an accomplished globetrotter. So I would take him rafting on the Colorado River. One of the premiere destinations in Utah would be Moab where you can take any level of river trip you desire from the simple yet exciting daily section, the more challenging Westwater Canyon trip, or the downright thrilling, nearly Grand Canyon trip down Cataract Canyon. Following whatever degree of thrill or placid floating Bourdain desires, I’d treat him to dinner at Buck’s Grill House.
Buck’s is an enigma to Moab. A rough resort town (formerly a uranium mining town) catering to mountain biking, whitewater rafting, jeeping and such is hardly a place you’d expect a culinary adventure. But Buck’s is exactly that, disguised as a restaurant in keeping with the look of the rest of Moab. On the outside, Buck’s is a log building set back from the highway leading into town. A kind of unassuming place you could stop by for a BBQ sandwich and a beer. But it’s much more than that. It is the prize of someone born in Moab and familiar with the culture. Tim Buckingham got his training at the Culinary Arts Program at Santa Barbara City College. While it’s no Culinary Arts Institute, he did train under the chefs at the San Ysidro Ranch and Four Seasons Biltmore and moving on to executive chef at the Wine Cask in Santa Barbara before moving back to Moab.
The food is definitely interesting to the palate. I had the Carne Bajio (slow cooked beef in adobo sauce wrapped in crepes with goat cheese, smashed black beans and rice verde). Can I say, “Holy shit!” – This is Moab! Get me a burger and get me on the trail! No really, the different tastes that go with this item are amazing. The smashed black beans are also something else, familiar and yet interesting. And, while not a big fan of rice, I loved the rice. Everyone in our group ordered something different and all had the same reactions. In fact, it was so much so that we all had to try each other’s entrees.
But a river trip is only a part of the spectacular scenery since visibility is limited in the bottom of a canyon. Next would be a scenic drive along Highway 12 between Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon National Parks. A scenic byway missed by a lot of tourists, and locals, which features spectacular views of the Grand Staircase. A drive along this winding two-lane road would encompass a stop at the Kiva Koffeehouse. A kiva is a room used by the Pueblo for religious ceremonies. While this building is modern, completed in 1998 by non-Native American engineer Bradshaw Bowman, a stop here is kind of a religious experience. The view from the dining room is like no other, a splash of color and vastness that sets the mind at ease. The homemade menu is refreshing and different from the usual roadside fare. They also have two ‘Kiva Kottages’ (one single King and a double Queen) that have no phone and no television but do include wireless Internet. Hey, no mindless television and no way to contact your broker but at least you can post to your blog!
Finally, I would provide Bourdain with a chance to get some greenery into the scenery with a trip to the northern Utah Wasatch Mountains. Utah is popular with Hollywood for the diversity of scenery from dry desert vistas to high alpine. Utah hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics so there must be mountains somewhere, right? And the best way, in my opinion, would be to see it from a hot air balloon in either the Park City or Heber valleys. Why ballooning? C’mon, I’m a balloon pilot. But after a bit of lazy floating we would go have a meal at the hospital (yes, the hospital!) and not because of some unfortunate ballooning incident. The locals all know that the best food in Park City is at the Silver King Cafe in the Park City Medical Center. Really. I had the opportunity to meet the executive chef and wellness coach Jason Kieffer recently and enjoy his spectacular and ever-changing health-oriented menu. His experience includes being the executive chef for Bill Gates’ management team. I imagine people were crying at his departure (Jason’s). This place I found through a word-of-mouth recommendation from locals I know who admit they eat there about 5 days a week. Walk into the medical center and you’d think you just walked into another guest lodge in Park City. This is the hospital I want to die in because I know that at least the food will be good.
Why kidnap Anthony Bourdain? After reading his first book, Kitchen Confidential, it became clear after having worked briefly in the restaurant industry that I did not have the intestinal fortitude (nor the blood stream capable of the drug and alcohol intake) necessary for a culinary career although I may share the same f**king vocabulary. Still, I enjoy his program on The Travel Channel, No Reservations, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter. I like the way he looks at destinations not as travel locations but as cultural experiences. He travels the way I like to travel. During this little felonious escapade in Utah with Bourdain I would hope that we could connect a bit on an intellectual level, have some good food and some great conversation, and then part ways having experienced an adventure together. Perhaps he’ll even thank me (probably not).
EDIT: Since writing this review, Buck’s Grill House closed. It saddened me that such a great restaurant couldn’t make it, but that’s the dilemma with food in a resort town.