Talk regional cuisines and when the region that pops up is the Southwest you know the talk is going to get spicy: Chipotle peppers with their rich, smoky flavor, habaneros with their bite, and potentially potent chile rellenos. But Southwestern cuisine is more diverse than its bite might indicate.
Editor's note: This story dates to 2009, but the Metate Room at Mesa Verde continues to draw impressive reviews for its cuisine.
You can discover that during a meal in the Metate Room at Mesa Verde National Park, where Executive Chef Brian Puett has developed a menu built around bison, elk, turkey and quail, as well as squash, black beans, and tortillas. Oh, and with prickly pears on occasion and a few spices tossed in more often than not.
Are his dishes spicy?
“Well, some people would definitely say that, and according to their palates they might be right,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t think it’s overly spicy, but with all the chilies used, I wouldn’t say they’re completely inaccurate. I am a huge advocate of the chili. You might say I love spicy food.”
The Metate Room long has enjoyed a reputation as one of Colorado’s best restaurants. It’s a reputation that Chef Puett, who came to Mesa Verde from Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, is adding to with his desire to literally bring the expansive landscape -- which is in sprawling view through the restaurant's over-sized windows -- into his kitchen.
“I’ve got a turkey appetizer and a turkey entree,” he says. “During the winter season you see a lot of turkey around here. It’s a big part of the reason I wanted to get it on here, plus the fact that I love turkey.
“The appetizer is called 'Masa Turkey.' It’s breaded in tri-color corn tortillas and served with a prickly pear red pepper jam,” Chef Puett says. “And then I’ve got a Turkey Napoleon, which is a pine-nut encrusted turkey breast fillet and it’s built up with roasted red peppers, spinach, heirloom tomatoes, cilantro rice, and it’s served with a sun-dried cherry demi glaze. Those are actually both pretty fun, and obviously the corn on the Masa Turkey definitely is native to the area, and sun-dried cherries, there are a lot of cherries in the general area, spinach, peppers, heirloom tomatoes.
“I pretty much try to design the whole menu around the area. I’ve got an Nanescatha pizza -- it’s a traditional Navajo flatbread -- and that one is served with a black-bean hummus spread on it, tomatoes, roasted peppers, cilantro, and cotija and jack cheese,” says the chef. “Pretty much my whole menu is built around the general area. A lot of it is the park, and a lot of it is the Southwest.”
And then there are the underlying spices that help bring the flavors boldly, and sometimes subtly, out.
“I definitely do use cumin here,” says Chef Puett. “It’s used a lot in these parts. Cumin, chili powders. You’ll find a lot of that all around the Southwest. ...I use a lot of herbs as well -- sage, rosemary, cilantro, a lot of cilantro. As far as spices, I use cinnamon. I have a cinnamon and chili spiced pork tenderloin.”
While cinnamon might seem an usual spice to use in Southwestern dishes, the chef says it “complements chili powders quite well.”
Now, the culinary movement to use more organic ingredients and cook as sustainably as possible hasn’t been overlooked in national parks. More and more, chefs are looking to surrounding communities for ingredients, whether that’s beef, poultry, or tomatoes. The goal is not only to meet the increased expectations of national park visitors, but to go easy on the environment and do as much business as possible with the locals.
“ARAMARK (the concessionaire that runs the Far View Lodge as well as the Metate Room) has a national distributor that we use and we are pretty much required to get at least 80 percent of our ingredients from them,” he says. “The rest of it I try to buy locally as much as possible. ...As far as the local food thing goes, it has a lot to do with supporting smaller farmers. Also, not using all the fuel to get the food here, say from Argentina, where they may be growing half of the produce at a certain time of year.”
How successful Chef Puett is in developing a slate of tasty, sustainable meals will be on display later this summer and into the fall during the “Taste of the Mesa” sustainable cuisine workshops that are being offered at Mesa Verde. Part cooking demonstration and part park tour, the workshops revolve around culinary creations that are just about as sustainable as they are palate-pleasing.
“We’re going to bring people in, show them local and organic wines, pair them up with some nice dinners, try and use as close to 100 percent sustainable products as we can for the whole workshops, which is a pretty large number,” says the chef. “If you get 95 percent sustainable in a meal, it’s pretty tricky and it takes a lot of work to find all that stuff somewhere. It’s actually a fun deal. It kind of just shows what we’re working towards. Eventually, we’d like to be able to do that for everything we do here, which is going to be a huge step and a process, but it’s fun to be able to do it for a few days.”
And what, you might wonder, constitutes “sustainable” when it comes to creating a dinner? According to Chef Puett, that means you rely as much as possible on locally obtained ingredients, minimize fuel in rounding up those items, minimize waste in food preparation, and minimize waste in terms of what goes into the garbage.
“Sometimes we’ll use a local, free range grass-fed cattle, and sometimes we’ll get it from our national purveyor, which is corn fed and not grown locally. That would be the difference,” he explains. “One of them is sustainable to the area, and one is grown in a different area, so it’s not necessary sustainable to Cortez.
“I’ll go to the farmers’ market and pick up all the produce on my own for that dinner. I’ll get in touch with some of the local farms for game or lamb or whatever it may be that I decide to use. Maybe go pick that up,” he adds. “It kind of resorts back to the old way of doing things before everything was shipped on planes and freighters and all that stuff. You just went down to your local market and picked it up all yourself.”