Seared ahi tuna with pickled watermelon and a splash of chipotle lime vinaigrette. Scottish salmon tostadas. Bison ribeye. Fish tacos constructed around sustainably sourced seabass. These are some of the entrées you can find in national parks these days, and they’re not the result of the National Park Service’s Healthy Parks, Healthy People initiative and its food guidelines for concessionaires.
While announcement of that initiative drew wide attention when it was made two weeks ago, in truth the drive for healthier menu options crafted from sustainable, and even organic, ingredients has been ongoing among some concessionaires for some years now.
It should be noted that not all park concessionaires have been heading quickly in this direction. According to a survey conducted in 2011 by the National Park Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, out of 79 park restaurants "just 19% of restaurant menus had at least one main dish that could be identified as healthy."
But the major concessionaires have been pursuing a healthier, more sustainable menu that has led not only to more creative meal options but increased business for farmers near national parks that can supply them with the freshest ingredients. This ongoing culinary evolution has been spurred not only by concerns over sustainable fisheries and the levels of obesity and diabetes in the country, but also diners' tastes.
It also has prompted some concessionaires to become more meticulous in monitoring what they offer and what they end up selling, an accounting that helps them be less wasteful in the kitchen and even reduce carbon footprints in terms of energy used in transportation and refrigeration.
Promoting Healthy Eating
Fifty years ago your options for dinner at the elegant El Tovar Hotel on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park would have ranged from Southern Fried Chicken with Country Gravy or Calf’s Liver Saute smoothered with Bermuda Onions to prime rib or cold sliced breast of turkey and ham with corn relish.
These days, however, many menus are very different. While the Healthy Parks, Healthy People initiative will help raise the profile of national park restaurants, it will have little effect on their day-to-day operations, according to two of the larger concessionaires.
“We’ve been doing this,” said Matt McTigue, executive chef of Xanterra Parks & Resorts' dining operations on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. “We’ve been on a 'never-ever' beef program in one of the restaurants on the South Rim for five years now. 'Never-ever' within the food industry, specifically for meats, chicken, beef, pork, whatever, means never given antibiotics or growth hormones."
For Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which operates lodges and/or restaurants at the Grand Canyon, Zion, Death Valley, Crater Lake, Petrified Forest, Yellowstone and Zion national parks as well as at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the company has been looking for healthier ingredients for at least a decade.
"Ten years ago when I went to a food show and said, 'Is this sustainable, is this natural organic?,' most of the people kind of looked at me cross-eyed and had no idea what I was talking about," Chef McTigue said. "But in the last three years, now everybody knows all about it. That’s just the natural direction that everybody’s been going on.”
The same can be said for the restaurant operations ARAMARK Parks & Destinations runs in such national parks as Mesa Verde in Colorado, Olympic in Washington state, Denali and Glacier Bay in Alaska, and at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah.
“It doesn’t change anything from a development piece,” Brian Stapleton, Aramark’s vice president of food and beverage, replied when asked about the Healthy Parks, Healthy People initiative. “We’ve been on this mission to support the general eating public from a more healthy option. That isn’t just consistent with the national parks, its been consistent with our general offerings across a line of businesses just because it makes sense in the trends in America to reduce obesity.”
The Proof Is In the Entree
The fare served in national park lodges hasn’t always been as tasty or as healthy as it is these days. Greasy burgers, piles of salty French fries, fried chicken, and fried foods in general, have a long history in the national parks. But for a decade or more many menus have been getting more creative, more tasty, and yes, even more healthy.
At Mesa Verde National Park, for example, the Metate Room has a well-deserved reputation as one of Colorado’s better restaurants.
When Brian Puett arrived there as executive chef in December 2009, one of the approaches he took was to reflect regional cuisines on his menus. Chipotle peppers with the rich, smoky flavor and habaneros with their bite became staples in his kitchen. So to did bison, elk, turkey and quail, along with squash and black beans. Even prickly pears even showed up on occasion.
To drive the sustainable end of his kitchen, the executive chef often would go to area farmers' markets for some of his ingredients.
That approach to healthier, more sustainable, cooking continues today throughout park lodges.
At Lake Powell in Glen Canyon NRA, Executive Chef Matt Smith has found a steady supplier of chilies and beans from a Colorado company. The chef also uses vendors that follow, and surpass, the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch program that tracks sustainable fisheries and which the Park Service wants concessionaires to use as a guide.
Sustainable Sourcing Can Be A Matter Of Perspective
Of course, in places such as Lake Powell in southern Utah and the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona, what qualifies as a sustainable producer can be quite different than what qualifies at a park such as Shenandoah in Virginia, where there is a veritable cornucopia of fresh vegetable suppliers in the surrounding area.
“Our unique challenge here where we are is because we are so remote there aren’t any farms that are close,” said Chef McTigue. “I know Yellowstone has an abundance of local produce that they can pull from. We don’t. We’ve tried to work with people in Flagstaff, but the biggest issue is because of the sheer volume that we do, can they provide us with a consistent product year-round at a consistent price? The bottom line is it is a business. We're here to make money. So for us, when we say our produce is local, we get it from Tucson. … Our definition of sustainable is something within 500 miles, and most people would laugh at that.”
When purchasing seafood, Xanterra Parks & Resorts works with Clean Fish, a company that uses an index that "covers food safety, traceability, social and community welfare, animal husbandry and welfare, environmental impact, risk mitigation, harvesting techniques, documentation and regulatory compliance, tertiary certifications and/or audits, covering both best practice aquaculture and wild capture procedures."
But Xanterra officials also have learned that sometimes products promoted as sustainable are not.
"About seven years ago we had a vendor come in and try to sell us on a pure grass-fed beef, it was from South America, I believe. Their whole point was it’s grass-fed, it's all natural," recalled Chef McTigue. "And then the further we dug into it, they’re basically clearing rainforest lands in order to harvest these cows. ... That doesn’t seem too sustainable. Unfortunately, that whole aspect of it is unregulated. It is left up to the individual business to try to investigate the validity of it."
Another time, he continued, a company promoted its chicken as "all natural," but a little questioning proved that it really wasn't.
"I happened to run into one of their corporate vice presidents, and said, 'So, what is it exactly that makes it all natural that you can claim that?' And he said, 'Oh, well, we do give them certain vitamins and we do give them certain antibiotics, but none of them are recognized by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), therefore it's all natural.'"
Once the ingredients -- whether it's seafood, poultry, beef, or vegetables -- reach the kitchen, ARARMARK's chefs are trained to use what Chef Smith describes as a "light touch" in cooking them.
"I think it’s important to understand that the less we touch ingredients, the better off it’s going to be when it touches the plate," he said.
For example, the chef went on, when fish tacos are made at the Rainbow Room at Lake Powell, the seabass is flash cooked "really quick just to give it a little texture, nothing crazy with the flavors from that perspective, and then just some real Southwest flavor (through seasoning).
“These aren’t giant tacos, these are just a nice little taste. Fresh slaw in there with a little bit of cabbage and a little bit of cilantro, dressed very lightly with a chipolte lime vinagrette, which ties in again with that Southwest flare," Chef Smith continued. "And we use a semi-soft Mexican cheese, called Oaxaca cheese, and just pica de gallo. It’s simple, it’s not overdone, we’re letting the seabass kind of shine there in that dish. The fewer times we can touch these items and manipulate them, the better off we’re going to be.”
Much the same approach is taken with the ahi tuna and pickled watermelon.
"We dust the ahi very lightly with a little blackened spice, sear that off, nice and rare, and we’ve got some beautiful regional watermelon that we pickle lightly with some cilantro and a couple of seasonings," the chef said. "It just kind of punches up that watermelon flavor. Some nice fresh radish, and a little bit of basil, splashed with a little vinigrette, and that’s about it, with a little bit of sea salt on top just to bring it all together.
“It doesn’t look like a simple dish from a presentation standpoint, but the flavors are very clean, very simple, and everything works well together.”
While dishes in national park restaurants have greatly evolved to be more healthy, that doesn't mean you won't be able to find a burger and fries.
"We can't shove the healthy food down their throats. We can make it an option," says Chef McTigue, adding that while diners are becoming more health conscious, there always will be some who want that greasy burger or meal with a high fat content.