Confessions of a Heliski Chef
The CMH kitchens produce the kind of dining experience you see in the lefthand photo, in the kind of locations you see in the righthand photo. The juxtaposition seems kind of unreal to me, so to get a glimpse of how they do it, I asked Rick Carswell, veteran chef of heliski lodges, CP Hotels, Holland America Cruise Lines, the film industry, pirate ships and the food and beverage manager for CMH.
TD: What issues do you face cooking at a CMH Lodge compared to an equivalent restaurant?
RC: As a chef at CMH you have an incredible amount of culinary freedoms, and on the flip side lifestyle restraints that are different from your average restaurant job. There is no-one else qualified in the lodge to cover for you if you get sick or injured and that can be intimidating and all-consuming. I remember being sick once and I had a dream that I walked down the hall to the managers room and told him that I was sorry that I wouldn't be able to cook breakfast because I was going to die - and I was terribly sorry. He thanked me for telling him and said it had been a pleasure getting to know me, then I turned and walked toward my room were I was going to die.
TD: How do you get all that food in there anyway?
RC: It takes about a week per lodge to refit them in the fall for the coming winter with all their food and beverage inventory. I figure as accurately as I can the amount of food they will need for this coming winter, run quotes for those supplies from all our vendors and then drive it to the lodge by the semi load. If you are at a lodge early in the season ask to have a look in the store rooms. It's impressive to see the wall of Kokanee beer, or the 100 bags of flour. During the operating season, the fresh food is ordered weekly by the chefs, received in Banff from the 15 or so suppliers where it is then sorted by area, reassembled and shipped to the appropriate helipad to meet the helicopters for it's trip to the lodge. Quite an interesting journey if you're a fresh mussle from PEI to a mountain lodge in three days, one plane ride, three different truck rides, one helicopter ride, one ski-do ride and passing through about a dozen sets of hands to get there.
TD: What does a CMH chef typical work day look like?
RC: Long. At CMH workday begins at 6am and finishes at 9pm and goes day after day for two weeks before you get a break. As a chef, if I got out skiing it meant that I would work into the night to get pay back for my reward of skiing, but man is it worth it. I can work on six hours sleep if I can get a few runs in the middle of the day and I find that I work much more effectively if I get outside for a bit.
TD: If an experienced chef wanted to work for CMH, what advice would you have for them?
RC: This is a serious work hard play hard environment. But you need to have the experience and confidence to be able to pull it off. We look at chefs with about five years post apprenticeship experience and hopefully in the eight years of their work experience they have moved to lots of different places, worked different styles of cuisine and have some management experience. It's a hard position to fill and certainly we have taken the chance on lesser experience levels for exceptional personalities who mostly have worked their way up our ladder but team is sustainable because we manage to retain about 80% of our chefs from one season to the next. The average work/life expectancy for our 44 chefs is around ten years, which is pretty spectacular in this industry of nomadic pirate chefs. My best friends are CMH chefs and we go back 20 years with this company. They are a book of stories and talent.
TD: Anything else you'd like to add?
RC: Come, enjoy the mountains and the skiing, but when you get back to the lodge stop by the kitchen and visit the chefs, I'm sure you'll be impressed with my friends, ask them about the vegetarians who eat lamb when they are at CMH, ask them what wine they will be drinking with dinner, ask them about their greatest culinary disaster and how, as a good pirate, they pulled it off and nobody noticed. My friends tell good stories.