Inside the Revolution That’s Sweeping Ski Area Food
At ski resorts across the state, chefs are bringing exciting new cuisine to themed slopeside restaurants. Here’s how they do it.
In the dark of a midwinter morning, chef Rebecca Clay jumps onto the back of a snowmobile at Okemo Mountain Resort. As the engine revs into gear, the last remnants of a full moon peek out from behind the clouds.
Just hours ago, a snowcat packed with produce, kegs of beer, fresh linens and more departed with a week’s worth of supplies for the 30-seat restaurant and cafeteria Clay runs with a staff of four on top of this 3,344-foot high mountain.
After a final chairlift ride to the top, the crew unlocks the Summit Lodge, grabbing one last peek at the pink sky before they head in. It’s Saturday morning and they have many meals to prep before last chair at 3 p.m. In other words, they have work to do—making dishes with Southern flair like the Barbecue Jackfruit Sandwich, a vegan dish that features braised green jackfruit, apple slaw and a barbecue sauce made with 14th Star Maple Breakfast Stout, served on a just-baked biscuit. Then there are the mouthwateringly tasty Crispy Shrimp ‘N Grits, which feature fried shrimp over hominy grits cooked with crispy chunks of pork belly, topped with a chili-infused maple drizzle.
This year will be the first year the Summit Lodge hosts a full-service, 30-seat restaurant, part of Okemo Food and Beverage director Jason Palmer’s plan to overhaul the resort’s dining facilities over the next three years.
Last season, Okemo added the Okemo Taphouse in the cozy upstairs of the Roundhouse. The tavern offers a rotating cast of local beers on draft and gourmet flatbread pizzas like the Notorious F.I.G., which features Bayley Hazen Blue cheese from Jasper Hill Creamery in
Greensboro, mozzarella and asiago cheeses, prosciutto, dried figs and radish sprouts, all topped with a decadent concoction of truffle oil and honey. That’s a far cry from the basic pepperoni pizza of yore.
This year, the new 43° North, a casual French Alpine dining spot opened in the former location of Epic, at the Solitude base area. The Summit Lodge saw a complete renovation and the addition of a gas fireplace downstairs as part of the new Robin’s Roost space—a casual, open layout restaurant with a weathered full-service bar on one end and big windows overlooking the slopes at the other. At mid-mountain, the Sugar House Lodge has a new kids’ menu and playfully updated interior.
Guests should also look out for themed pop-up restaurants at hidden spots across the mountain, like a new gourmet s’mores bar or a station offering maple cream puffs out of the back of a snowcat.
And that’s not all. As soon as lift service ends for the season in the spring, the ski area is embarking on a 4,000-square-foot addition to its existing Jackson Gore base lodge, adding big windows, a slopeside patio with firepits, an outdoor umbrella bar and a new slope-level cafeteria. The space will feature a Hibachi-style grill, a sushi bar and a 50-seat bar at the center of the room.
As Okemo’s executive chef Mark Weigand says, “Our goal is to create dining experiences that are so unique people will ski to different parts of the mountain to find them.”
Taking the Menu Up a Notch
At ski areas around the state, executive chefs are bringing a fresh perspective to traditional on-mountain dining. These resorts and others are revamping the experience to be much bigger than burgers, chicken tenders and fries.
In the Mad River Valley, Sugarbush brought on a new executive chef this year, Vanessa Davis, and a new vice president of food and beverage, Steve Ohayon—an alumn of Keystone, Colo. and of Alyeska Resort in Alaska’s Chugach range.
Head to breakfast at the newly revamped Rumble’s Bistro & Bar in Sugarbush’s slopeside Lincoln Peak Village and you’ll find creative international fare with a uniquely Vermont twist alongside classic staples.
Try the shakshuka—a Lebanese dish that features farm-fresh eggs baked over a bed of locally-sourced vegetables from Mad River Valley farms with a distinctive tomato-based sauce. For dinner, try the Prime Rib Sliders—little sandwiches stacked with roasted ribeye, caramelized onion from Waitsfield’s Gaylord Farm, blistered sweet and spicy shishito peppers and a fondue made from melted Cabot cheddar.
Not only are the menus at ski areas getting more and more complex, the resorts are getting more and more creative about where they serve food.
Take Killington’s Motor Room Bar, located in the renovated motor room of the now defunct Devil’s Fiddle chair. A reservation at this hip bar includes front-row seats to the sunset followed by stunning views through the expansive glass of the crisp, starry winter sky.
There, on select evenings, small parties can enjoy cocktails like the Hot Apple Cider Mulled Wine, served in a glass with a maple sugar rim. Try the uniquely-Vermont truffle-infused fondue made with clothbound cheddar from Grafton, with Vermont bacon, and rack of lamb rolled and roasted in oregano, maple-y pork belly, skewered king trumpet mushrooms, winter squash and white asparagus for dipping.
Add to that an increasing number of unique mid-mountain or mountaintop dinner places like Sugarbush’s Allyn’s Lodge, Stowe’s Cliff House, Killington’s Ledgewood Yurt or Mount Snow’s mountaintop Bullwheel, and you might argue that there’s a revolution happening here with ski area food.
High Mountain Haute Cuisine Goes Local
“Some people just want to grab a burger and get back out onto the slopes,” says Eric Rusch, the executive chef of Killington’s Peak Lodge who opened the facility in 2013. The key, he says, is in making sure that burger isn’t just any old defrosted patty.
At Killington, the meat comes from cattle raised on nearby farms, the cheese comes from a Vermont producer and that burger is topped with caramelized onion, applewood-smoked
bacon, banana peppers and a house secret: Peak Sauce.
Today, Rusch oversees the day-to-day operations of the six dining facilities, including three that are located on the slopes at Killington.
“Building a menu, I want it to be absolutely unique—not just at our resort, but anywhere,” Rusch says. “We also want to showcase what we have in Vermont. We use local produce wherever possible, and all of our burger meat is sourced through Robie Farm, a company that raises beef and buys directly from local farms in Vermont and New Hampshire.”
You won’t find Kraft American cheese at Killington’s Peak Lodge (meals are served with Cabot cheddar) and each burger, salad and dish at the cafeteria is made fresh to order—no small feat for a facility that serves 12,000 burgers in a season.
With a seating capacity of 300 and a staff of 50, Peak Lodge has a large food court. Across the resort, Killington serves 6,000 hand-ground turkey burgers each season—many of them prepared at Peak Lodge. “We go through 20 kegs in a week easily, at the bar up there. And that’s before all the bottled beer and cocktails we serve,” says Rusch. On a busy Saturday, they can serve as many as 1,500 beers at the bar, many of them from Vermont breweries like Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Waitsfield and Fiddlehead in Shelburne.
At Okemo, Palmer shares that local food ethos and knows the challenges that come with it: Okemo serves over 60 pounds of chicken, much of it slow cooked and hand-pulled, on a busy day at its Summit Lodge.
“We are lucky to live in a place where there is amazing agriculture in our ski communities. And as a big buyer we know we can make a big difference by choosing to buy local,” says Palmer. The challenge is in finding a local producer who can keep up with the volume. “For us, daily specials are a great place to introduce local producers,” says Palmer.
And as skiers’ expectations around food climb, Okemo has looked to the local food community for leaders. This season, Jason Corrigan, the chef that launched Mama’s Hand Made Italian restaurant in downtown Ludlow, was brought on board to revamp the Solitude Lodge’s restaurant, formerly known as Epic, into 43° North, a café featuring the cuisine of France with a Vermont flair.
For lunch, pair the trout almandine, which features rainbow trout from a hatchery in Perkinsville, Vt., filleted and coated in a fine layer of almond meal, then pan-seared in butter with capers and lemon, with a cold glass of Chardonnay. Or sip a craft cocktail like the Ludlow Lemon Drop Martini, a tart concoction made with Absolut Citron and fresh lemon, served in a martini glass with a sugar rim.
The Vail Advantage
At Vail-owned resorts such as Okemo and Stowe, another factor plays into the way menus are designed: a special food and beverage analytics software called Avero.
According to Palmer, Avero tracks where and when passholders spend their money on the mountain using the purchasing credits stored on season pass accounts. That information can then be aggregated to analyze customer behavior—along with Epic Pass information about the demographics of spenders such as their age, where they are from, how much and how often they ski and how many runs they take in a given day.
Palmer is using Avero now to inform the complete overhaul he is working on with Okemo’s on-mountain dining facilities. “We’re working on a 100 percent turnover with
regard to branding and menus in the next three years,” he says. For skiers, that means more boutique dining experiences across the mountain—with each restaurant offering something completely new and different.
As executive chef Mark Wiegand notes, Vail Resorts has dramatic purchasing power. “Normally, a chef or restaurant will go to a purveyor, such as Sysco and negotiate individually for the ingredients they want. Being under the Vail Resorts umbrella, we are so big that those companies will prioritize supply for us,” says Wiegand.
Last summer, Vail Resorts invited the executive chefs from each of its 37 resorts to a summit in Denver, where they met to sample prospective products from the leading food companies. “For example, we sampled 40 different kinds of French fries,” said Wiegand. “Each of us was then told to select the best product for our resort. The same went for sandwich meats and other ingredients.”
Vail is also, apparently, supportive of innovation at its resorts. “I think it speaks to the
level of creative license and financial backing we have that we are able to recruit a chef from a beloved local establishment like Mama’s VT,” says Weigand, who, as an avid fly-fisherman, is also passionate about Vail’s commitment to producing net zero waste by 2030.
“Part of our challenge is: how do you deliver a food product in an extremely high-volume environment that is attractive and uses little or no landfill waste?” said Palmer.
For Rebecca Clay and her team, that means, among other things, bringing down about 1,200 pounds of compost each week from the Summit Lodge. It means washing china and glass dishes instead of throwing away disposable ones. It means eliminating bottled water. And it also means being as lean and efficient as possible.
“As a company of our scale, we have real power to bring change to the way the food industry does things that supports a greener future. And at our restaurants, skiers can be part of that,” said Palmer.
Making the Magic Happen
There’s something magical about eating a meal on top of the mountain —whether it’s coming in for a sit-down lunch at a place like Stowe’s Cliff House or taking a cat ride under the stars to a five-course meal in a cozy ski lodge (as you can do at Killington, Stratton, Okemo, Sugarbush and Stowe). But the biggest challenge in serving food at the top of a mountain is supplying ingredients to the summit.
Take Allyn’s Lodge at Sugarbush, where skiers may skin up for a meal and then ski down by headlamp after (snowcat rides are also an option). For the special monthly dinners there, chef Jim Dinan sears his locally-sourced, hand-picked steaks on a two burner stove before finishing them in a small oven. Staff preps much of the food—even the crème brulée—ahead of time.
Ingredients for the meals must be carefully packaged in insulated carts and carried up to the lodge by employees—one server and one ski patroller—on the Super Bravo express quad.
The lodge—which serves basic sandwiches and soups during the day—also has no running water, but it manages to transform itself into a magical dinner spot, where
parties of up to 24 are served fireside on a long table covered in a white tablecloth and lit by candles.
During the day ski patrol helps fill and haul water for the dish bins, but most of the dishes get carted down at the night’s end to be washed by dishwashers in the kitchen at Rumble’s.
At the end of the night, Dinan guides skiers back down the mountain—a nice reward after a long day’s work crafting decadent meals for hungry skiers and riders.
At Killington, about 400 pounds of fresh produce are carried up to the Peak Lodge each day by a custom-designed snowcat (new for this season), including about six bouquets of fresh flowers. An insulated crate keeps precious vegetables and fruits from freezing during the 20-minute journey to the summit—a trip that happens each night between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m.
“My title is executive chef, but about 10 percent of my job is Mountain Ops,” says Killington’s Eric Rusch, whose job is to make sure that everything from flowers to kegs stays fresh and un-frozen on its journey to the summit.
Because of its central location and state-of-the-art equipment, Peak Lodge is also the primary prep kitchen for all of Killington’s on-mountain dining facilities.
On a busy Saturday, Killington’s Peak Lodge will serve 1,500 freshly-made hamburgers. “We also hand-cut and prep 600 pounds of raw chicken each week for the Jamaican Mountain Grill alone, then package it and send it there by snowcat,” says Rusch.
Head there and you’ll find dishes like the Jerk Brisket, a sandwich that features dry-rubbed beef brisket, jerk barbecue sauce, chipotle gouda and harissa cabbage slaw on a toasted brioche bun. And it’s authentic—crafted with the guidance of some of Killington’s longtime Jamaican seasonal employees. You can even order your meal with goat or pork.
Above: 1. Killington offers remote dining at Ledgewood Yurt. Photo by Chandler Burgess; 2. At the Jerk Jamaican Mountain Grill, the chef recommends goat. Photo courtesy Killington Mountain Resort; 3. Chefs at Killington get creative when it comes to serving meals from their multiple mountainside kitchens. Photo by Chandler Burgess
At Killington, all of this has to happen during the hours lifts operate. “We have amazing employees at Peak Lodge, and sometimes, if you get slammed all day, you want to stay late and prep or clean, as would happen at a restaurant in the valley. We have to tell people, drop everything and take the gondola down. We’ll figure it out in the morning,” says Rusch. And every day, by 11 a.m., they do.
“This work takes resilience and it’s not for everybody,” says Rebecca Clay. “But when you’re serving comfort food like the Mason Dixon Line—a Southern-style sandwich with smoked, pulled chicken, North Country smokehouse bacon—to hungry skiers, and you look out and see them at the bar on a snowy day, it feels good.”
Plus, she says, she wouldn’t trade anything for the sunrises. Just ask her about them sometime
For Wiegand, it helps that he gets to snowboard between the restaurants he oversees. “In what other job do you get this incredible freedom and support to invent rich, diverse dishes and create these magical dining destinations and make turns while you do it? It’s an exciting time to be in food in the ski industry.”
Featured Photo: Tucked inside the Motor Room Bar at Killington, out of the elements, skiers enjoy a smorgasbord of local fare with fine cocktails and wine. Photo courtesy Killington Mountain Resort.
This story has been updated from the original version which appeared in print in the Winter 2020 issue of Vermont Ski + Ride magazine for accuracy.