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Utah Series: Midway and the Heber Valley, part 1

Utah is like an entire continent in one state.  Never, in all my travels around the world, have I discovered a place so dramatically varied in climate and geology in such a comparatively small space.  And while I tend to focus on wilderness spots in my Utah writings…(and Utah has no shortage of wilderness)…in this installment I’m going to feature one of the most unique villages in the state: Midway.

Located just 45 miles southeast of Salt Lake City is the Heber Valley…a lush, pastoral, mountain-fringed valley filled with farms and historic villages.  And while Salt Lake is a modern, gleaming, cosmopolitan city, the rugged Wasatch mountain range has kept the Heber Valley feeling like yesteryear.  The sleepy villages in the valley are home to fantastic small inns, superb restaurants, and artisan shops…but don’t have the artificial, stuffy, snobbish feel of places like Park City, where the Sundance Film festival is currently taking place.

Midway is a town I’ve driven through more than a dozen times, because it’s home to The Homestead, a century-old family resort which has one of the world’s most unique hot springs on its grounds.  (You know how much I love hot springs!)  The Crater is unique in that it is located inside a natural cave formed by mineral deposits from the hot springs, and its 65-foot crystalline depths are regularly plumbed by SCUBA divers.  You can actually get your certification here…after a morning on the slopes in nearby Deer Valley, if you wish.  It’s one of the only places in the world where you can ski the country’s best powder in the morning, and SCUBA dive in geothermally heated hot spring water in the afternoon.  For more info on the hot springs in the Heber Valley, check out my article on Utah’s hot springs.

The Homestead is an impossibly-charming resort consisting of historic buildings that have been lovingly resorted into hotel rooms, and it’s an integral part of the local culture.  When I was there most recently, they were hosting their annual Fall Festival and the entire city was out to look at the scarecrow competition:

The feeling you get in Midway is what you always imagined those small villages in New England were like a century ago.  It’s a very close-knit community that seems to really celebrate and treasure the important things in life…family, friendship, good food, and good living.  And BOY did I eat well when I was there.  The Homestead is home to two excellent restaurants.  I had my first dinner at Simon’s, which serves up American homestyle cooking.  We ordered most of the menu.  We started with fried green tomatoes which was served with a side of pimento cheese (that one made me weak in the knees) as well as crispy-fried cheese curds from a local creamery (more on that in a bit)…then came their house-made rolls, baked and served in flower pots.  GENIUS!

The main courses were Fanny’s famous fried chicken (just about the best I’ve ever had), “meat and potatoes” which was far more sophisticated than it sounds…beef braised slowly in red wine and veggies, and served on a bed of fluffy mashed potatoes, a center-cut filet cooked perfectly…  OH, and I guess a salad.  A spinach and strawberry salad with candied pecans, beets, and goat cheese with pomegranate vinaigrette, thank you very much!  Fabulous.

I was actually staying across the road from The Homestead at the stunning Zermatt Resort and Spa, which is owned by the same friendly folks, but feels like a world away.  This Swiss-style resort is gleaming and palatial, backed up against the mountains, and when you step out of your car and breathe in that brisk alpine air, you’d almost swear you were in the Alps.

This place regularly wins Best Resort in the state, yet it’s just over the hill from Park City’s posh, world-renowned resorts.  (If that doesn’t tell you something, I don’t know what will!)  Take note all you skiers…you already know that Deer Valley is the country’s best powder.  Zermatt runs shuttles to Deer Valley all day during the season, yet their rates can be HUNDREDS of dollars less than Park City’s resorts, so you can enjoy the welcoming, casual environment of Midway (where dining is just as good, but much cheaper) in the evenings, rather than the swanky, posh-posh lounges of Park City.  While Zermatt’s got all the usual resort-style amenities (a stunning indoor/outdoor pool, a sumptuous spa that treated me VERY well), they are known for their food and their carousel.  The Swiss-style bakery on site makes the most incredible pastries, and their signature restaurant, Z Chop Haus, fed me one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time.

While I was desperately trying to decide WHICH house-aged USDA prime steak to order, the chef sent out a lovely amuse bouche of lobster claw and tail meat, local veggies, and avocado cream.  Next came the bread plate, house-baked bread and pretzels with herb butter:

We started with traditional Swiss fondue, then moved on to a beautiful lobster bisque.  Then I saw “raclette” on the menu and there was no way I wasn’t ordering that!  Raclette is a very special Swiss cheese that’s hard to find, and Z bakes it with zucchini and tomatoes, topped with a pine nut streusel.  I can’t explain to you how delicious it was.  By the time my 21-day dry aged New York strip arrived, I was already bursting at the seams, and I couldn’t finish all FOURTEEN OUNCES of it.  (The rest kept me company back to my room.)  They cooked it perfectly to order (medium rare), by the way…something that is surprisingly rare, even for good steakhouses.  Chef Joey Pesner came out to see how we were doing and asked what we’d like for dessert, and all I could do was groan.  So he sent out a tiny one-bite dessert…something I wish more restaurants would do.  A little chocolate mousse wonder that was perfectly bittersweet with a hint of espresso.  What a meal!  On the way back to the room, we had to take a spin on Zermatt’s famous carousel:

Delightfully, I saw more adults on the carousel during my stay than kids…there’s just something about a carousel that brings out your inner child.

The next day we were told we should eat at Tarahumara, a word I instantly recognized.  The Tarahumara are a small native tribe who live in the Copper Canyon region of northern Mexico, and I was immediately curious about how this word made it to rural Utah.  I did NOT have high expectations for a Mexican food restaurant in Midway.  I’m from Texas.  I ate Mexican food daily in the womb.  It is, to this day, my favorite food.

So, imagine my surprise when, after my [first] meal at Tarahumara, I actually said out loud, “That’s the best Mexican food I’ve ever eaten.”  And I wasn’t lying.  Greg, the restaurant owner, is a 47 year veteran in the industry (mostly in nearby Park City), and when he met his wife Gloria, who grew up with the Tarahumara, they delved into an exploration of northern Mexico’s cuisine.  This restaurant was the result, and I’m not the only one who recognizes how incredible it is.  Half their patrons drive an hour from Salt Lake to dine there.  They have a whopping 73 reviews on Yelp (no other restaurant in Midway comes close).  Even by Yelp standards, a restaurant with that many reviews that STILL has 4.5 stars is almost unheard of.  This is truly a world-class restaurant hiding in sleepy little Midway…OKAY enough about the restaurant, WHAT ABOUT THE FOOD?!?

We started with their impressive margarita selection, and I really wanted to work my way through the whole list because they all sounded amazing.  The Rosangel Margarita is made from a tequila that is aged in port barrels and was paired with house-infused hibiscus flower tequila, and fresh squeezed lime juice.  Almost no sugar at all in this one, piquant and tart and incredibly sip-able.  After a quick trip to the salsa bar (which features 45…count them…house-made salsas), I was ready for ANOTHER margarita, so the ginger margarita soon made its way to the table, followed closely by the passion fruit margarita, sweetened with agave nectar.

While the main menu may contain a healthy selection of classic Mexican favorites, the specials board was what interested me most.  Shrimp fajitas grilled over sugarcane.  Papaya chicken quesadillas.  Duck tacos with mango sauce.  Then…at the bottom of the list…huitlacoche tamales.  Huitlacoche is known as “Mexican corn truffles” on menus in the US, but it’s more commonly known in the agricultural community as “corn smut,” a fungus that destroys entire fields of corn in the Midwest.  Farmers curse the fungus as they watch their fields burn, without a clue that the corn they are destroying has been miraculously transformed into a delicacy that fetches $50 a pound or more on the gourmet market.  I have read about huitlacoche for years, but it’s so rare that it’s VERY hard to find in this country.  I literally jumped out of my chair when I saw it on the menu, much to the amusement of the owner.  When the tamales arrived, I dove into them…and what a flavor!  Corney, to be sure, but earthy and nutty and mild and delicious.  The tamales were served with their house mole, one of the most complex sauces of any of the world’s cuisines.

There’s no shortage of dessert on the menu, because the restaurant owns the bakery next door, which specializes in tres leches cake (an old family recipe), house-made churros, chocolate cake with vanilla bean, coffee, cinnamon, and ancho chile, and every Mexican confection under the sun.

I left Tarahumara in a daze.  (And it wasn’t just the creative margaritas!)  It took me several hours to process the meal, and just to be sure I wasn’t dreaming, I went back AGAIN the next day.  I got to quiz owner Greg and his son David a bit more about the restaurant, which uses organic flour, GMO-free corn, no hydrogenated fats, and makes all their tortillas and chips in-house.  (They were speaking my language!  But I was still dumbfounded to stumble across this in tiny, traditional Midway.)  Of course I wanted more huitlacoche, but they had run out of the small supply they had been able to source.  So I had to “make do” with this:

A roasted poblano pepper stuffed with crab, lobster, and prawns, smothered in Oaxaca cheese, on a pool of roasted red pepper sauce.  Oh, and it was served with wax beans from a farm a couple of miles away.  So as bizarre as it seems for me to say this…if you’re as crazy about Mexican food as I am, you need to high tail it to Midway, Utah and eat a few meals at Tarahumara.  It is E-P-I-C.

That certainly wasn’t the end of our culinary adventures.  The following night we were invited to dine at the Blue Boar Inn, a world-class B&B in Midway that consistently receives AAA’s 4 Diamond award.  (Almost unheard-of for a B&B.)  In 2012 it won best B&B in Utah, along with Best European Fine Dining and Best Chef.  And Chef Eric May has spun a magical menu that reflects Midway’s Swiss heritage, Utah’s legendary game, and France’s most beloved classics.

First out was seared scallops (and LOOK at that sear!!!), shaved fennel, baby watercress, and local tomatoes on a brown butter orange vinaigrette.  We also ordered a charcuterie plate with house-cured wild boar salami and coppa.

Next came a pair of salads…the one at left is their house salad with local greens, house cured gravlax (cold smoked pickled salmon), asparagus and avocado with a white balsamic vinaigrette.  They also brought out a salad of arugula, poached pears, and Maytag blue cheese with a port wine vinaigrette.

Our party size was large enough that we were able to order EVERY entree on the menu.  Mine was bacon-wrapped rabbit tenderloin with carrot puree, poached asparagus, and microgreens.  But there was also a schnitzel of pork loin with a sunny side up egg, house made spaetzel, and a lemon caper white wine sauce.  Then there was cassoulet, a French favorite, a pot of beans slow baked with wild boar, pheasant, rabbit, and rattlesnake sausage.  And did I mention the poached halibut on quinoa with edamame, zucchini, and heirloom tomato salad with a crispy polenta cake?  Okay…I’d better stop.  Pair all this with a tour through their Wine Spectator-awarded wine list, and you’d need to take a stroll around the property to clear your head, too!

Blue Boar’s handful of rooms are all named after famous authors, and the inn is too picturesque for words.  The bar at left, called “Truffle Hollow,” is steeped in antiques, from the floor (which was the reclaimed roof of a French barn that was used as a hangar during World War 1, to the 500 year old hand-carved bar, to the tables and chairs which came from an 19th century French bistro.

The grounds are no less impressive, and I found it incredibly hard to tear myself away from this very special place.  And after such a meal, I decided to walk back to Zermatt, enjoying the stars and the twinkling lights of Midway in the valley below.  Tiny, sleepy, authentic, undiscovered Midway, with less than 4,000 residents.  Where I had just had some of the best meals and seen some of the most unique and fabulous hotels of my entire life.

Now before you think that all I did on this vacation was eat, there’s another blog coming!  From a historic train ride where we were held up by bandits, to foraging for wild watercress beneath an alpine waterfall, to my very first hot air balloon ride!  But that’s a story for next week.

For now, I leave you with an image of sunrise behind the accordion-playing-bear-statue on the front porch of the Zermatt resort in one of the most surprising and unique destinations I’ve found in these magnificent United States…Midway and the Heber Valley.

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Utah Series: Hot Springs

Those who follow my blog regularly know how obsessed I am with natural hot springs.  They never cease to amaze me.  The fact that toasty warm water seeps up from beneath the ground and provides us with a natural jacuzzi just blows my mind over and over.

In this special series where I’m highlighting my favorite spots in my favorite state, Utah, I’m going to introduce you to some favorite hot springs of mine…some of them are popular and heavily visited, and others are more obscure and remote.

We’re stOgden hot springarting in the north of the state, just outside the town of Ogden, Utah, less than an hour north of Salt Lake City.  Here you’ll find a hot spring tucked into spectacular Ogden Canyon, where a series of beautiful stone pools sit just above a rushing stream and provide an INCREDIBLY hot soak that’s very popular with folks from the nearby town.

Depending on their state of repair and the level of the creek, there are anywhere from two to eight soaking pools here in Ogden Canyon.  The temperatures in the pools are all on the very high end, above 104F.  This makes the pools a fabulous place to soak in the fall and winter.  But if you happen to visit in the peak of summer, when I did, the icy stream may end up being more comfortable!  Ryan and I ended up having to shield ourselves from the blistering sun with the sun shade from my car!

You know you’re a dedicated hot spring soaker when you’re soaking in 104 degree water on a 100 degree day!  *chuckle*  Most people would think we’re crazy, but I had wanted to soak at Ogden for years, so the summer heat wasn’t going to stop me.  It’s important to bring a bucket with you to this hot spring, so you can ladle cold water from the creek into the pools to cool them off.  Some of the pools are so hot in summer that you can’t even get into them without bailing in water from the creek.

Luckily, the sun went down below the canyon wall, and at sunset the air cooled off considerably.  Of course, this brought the crowds from town, so we no longer had the place to ourselves.  Two of the upstream pools were broken at the time of my visit, so everyone was crowding into the hottest pools downstream.  But it was still a fabulous soak, and when you get overheated, you can plunge into the icy stream to cool off.

The next spring I’m taking you to is less than an hour’s drive southeast of Salt Lake City.  Even though it’s a pretty stiff 2.5 mile hike each way to this spring, it is WILDLY popular with both locals, as well as hiking buffs from nearby Salt Lake.  This is Diamond Fork, or Fifth Water hot springs:

Fifth Water hot springsMany hot spring enthusiasts consider Diamond Fork to be the best hot spring in the country, if not the planet, and I was VERY eager to visit.  My trip was on a rainy autumn day, and even though I broke my personal rule of NEVER visiting a hot spring on a weekend, it was the only time I could go.  I was hoping the rain would keep the crowds at bay, but as you can see from the photo, I wasn’t lucky.

Fifth Water hot springsThe soaking pools at Diamond Fork are strung along a cool stream both below and above a fairly big waterfall.  In the summer, the stream is warm enough to swim in, but in fall you gotta stick to the pools.  There are many pools of various sizes and temperatures.  The ones in the photo to the left are the most coveted and deepest, but there are some shallower ones below the base of the waterfall.  If you have trouble finding seclusion, the Kokopelli Pools are a slick and mildly dangerous scramble up above the waterfall:

Fifth Water hot springsUnfortunately, with all the rain, the icy creek was overflowing into these pools, making them too cold to soak, so we had to stick to the crowded pools below the main falls, which were lovely with the autumn colors:

Fifth Water hot springsThere is a cave behind the waterfall that you can carefully climb to…in warm weather, of course!  And the creek below the soaking pools is so heavy with dissolved minerals from the hot springs that it runs a pale, milky blue and remains tepid for almost a mile before it joins a larger creek.

Fifth Water hot springsMost wilderness hot springs like this are relatively uncrowded and it’s common for most users to soak au-naturel…sans clothing…er…naked.  Which is definitely the way I prefer to enjoy nature’s bounty of geothermal water.  But Diamond Fork is plagued by several factors that make it unwise to soak nude there…the conservative Mormon influence on law enforcement has caused the local police to drive from the nearest town to the remote parking lot, hike an hour up the canyon into the wilderness, and arrest groups of hikers soaking nude, charge them with public indecency, and force them to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.  Which is completely and utterly ridiculous.  Luckily, a high court overturned the local court’s decision, and to my knowledge, no one ever arrested at Diamond Fork is still on the sex offender’s list.  At any other hot spring in the country that requires an hour-long wilderness hike, you’ll find virtually everyone soaking naturally…but not here.  So don’t forget your swimsuit at this one!

I have to admit that after well over a decade of anticipation, Diamond Fork did NOT impress me to the extent that I had hoped.  Perhaps when I can hike there midweek in the off season, camp in the canyon above the pools, and have them all to myself in the early morning hours…I’ll change my tune.  But there are so many other wonderful wilderness springs that DON’T look like a public swimming pool on a July weekend…so for now, I’ll stick to those!

And one of them is Gandy Warm Springs, in remote western Utah just a stone’s throw from the Nevada border!

Here in the middle of a very parched, arid desert, a river of 82 degree water explodes from the side of rugged mountain riddled with caves.  Gandy is a long way from anywhere, and aside from occasional swimmers from the handful of ranches in the area, you’re likely to have it all to yourself.  You’re not likely to find yourself anywhere near Gandy unless you’re visiting America’s least-visited mainland national park, Great Basin, which is less than an hour away, and home to the oldest trees in the world, the bristlecone pines.  From Great Basin, it’s a half-hour drive on a good dirt road to the turnoff for Gandy, and then half a mile of VERY bad dirt road to the springs.

This is rattlesnake country, so if you decide to pick your way up from the waterfall to the beautiful soaking pool and caves above, be extremely cautious in the tall brush.  I saw 2 rattlers on my visit!

The upper soaking pool at Gandy is a real gem, even though it’s a bit chilly for the cool seasons.  Locals have cleverly crafted a fire pit next to the pool, for a bonfire on warm summer evenings.  Just above the upper pool is a small cave that the stream funnels into:

There are caves all over the place here…up on Gandy Mountain behind the springs are several large caves that are gated.  The local ranch can provide tours with enough advance notice.  But there’s a cave behind the lower waterfall that can be explored by anyone with a bit of an adventurous spirit.

It doesn’t look like an extensive cave upon first glance, but in the back of this overhang is a narrow passage that requires you to duck underwater for a couple of feet to emerge in the larger passage beyond.  (Be EXTREMELY cautious if you decide to explore the cave!)  The passage goes back about 50 feet and the water is chest deep with a fairly stiff current, and in places you have to hold onto the walls of the cave to prevent it from sweeping you back toward the entrance!  The walls of the cave are beautifully decorated with stalactites due to the constant dripping water.  Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos in the cave because the steam from the warm water fogged up my camera.  You will need a waterproof flashlight to explore the farthest corners of the cave, and make sure you have a friend stationed at the entrance in case you need help.

Here’s a short video of the springs:

Back in civilization, there’s a pretty stellar hot spring less than a mile from I-15 near the village of Meadow.  Meadow hot springs is on private land, but the owner has generously made it available to the public, provided you follow his rules: no alcohol or drugs, and no nudity.  Scout troops normally conduct cleanups of the area, which is regularly trashed by local partiers.  Meadow is one of the more unusual hot springs out there.

A collection of 3 large pools sit in a meadow at the foot of the Wasatch mountains, but unlike most springs, these pools have no outflow.  They are just holes in the ground filled with hot water.  The level of the water varies significantly throughout the year, as does the temperature, but the pools don’t release any water into a stream.  Which is just bizarre.

The main soaking pool is so deep (over 30 feet)…also unusual for hot springs…so there’s a rope stretched across the pool for you to hold onto while you peer into the crystalline depths of the pool:

You can camp on the flat ground near the parking lot, and I often do.  I’ve visited Meadow hot springs half a dozen times, and it’s always a fabulous soak.  Here’s some video to give you a closer look:

Utah has many commercially-developed hot springs, and I normally avoid these places because they come with crowds and clothing-required policies.  However, I make an exception for one of the most unique geothermal areas anywhere…Midway.

In this gorgeous, historic town settled by Swiss immigrants, most of the groundwater is hot, and the fields and farms are irrigated by geothermal water.  On cold winter mornings, it looks like the fields are steaming, and this is one place where, even when the ground is buried under snow, tomatoes and melons can grow in geothermally-heated greenhouses.  Here you’ll find the historic Homestead Resort, which has been a wayside stopover for weary travelers for more than a century.  On the grounds of the resort is “The Crater,” one of the world’s most striking hot springs, hidden inside a massive limestone dome made of minerals deposited by the spring over millenia:

The water in The Crater is clear blue and over 65 feet deep…so deep that local outfitters offer SCUBA lessons there.  In fact, this is one of the only places in the world where you can spend the morning on world-class ski slopes (in just-over-the-hill Deer Valley and the Park City resorts), and the afternoon SCUBA diving in warm water!  The water in The Crater varies from 90F to 96F, which, in chilly alpine Utah, would normal restrict soaking to the warmest summer nights…but since you’re inside a cave, it makes year-round soaking possible!  It’s really an extraordinary thing.

Early soakers had to descend a rope through The Crater’s opening to access the water, but in the early 1900s, the resort blasted a hole through the side of the mineral dome, which lowered the level of the water to the current level (which does fluctuate throughout the year), so now you access it by a tunnel.

The Crater is the largest of a whole series of hot spring craters dotted across the area where hot water rises to the surface along a fault line.  The puzzling thing is that the level of water in each crater varies…two craters right next to each other may have water levels that vary up to 20 feet between them, and water in a crater uphill may be lower than the water level in a crater downhill from it.  The whole place is really bizarre.  Some of the craters are right next to the road:

The only other soakable crater in the area is on the grounds of the stunning Zermatt Resort, located right across the street from The Homestead and owned by the same folks:

This is a world-class resort and spa (which often wins Best Resort in the state), just 20 minutes from Park City, but even in peak season, their prices are a fraction of what you’d pay over the hill in Park City’s stuffy, posh resorts.  And they run shuttles to Deer Valley all day long in the ski season.  So it makes a perfect base for you ski fanatics, because you can ski the country’s best powder during the day, and soak in 100F geothermal water at night in Zermatt’s beautiful hot spring crater:

Many other craters lie on the grounds of the resort, one of which has a waterfall going into it.

Next week I’ll be highlighting Midway as a destination, because it’s such a cool place.  There’s incredible food, family farms producing artisan products, world-class small inns at unthinkable prices…all just a stone’s throw from Salt Lake.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour of Utah’s natural hot springs.  There are states with more thermal water than Utah…but none have the wide span of unique features that you find here in my favorite state.

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Burning Man 2012: The Pilgrimage

If you’ve been following me since my season of MasterChef aired last summer, you know how fanatical I am about the Burning Man festival.  Trying to describe this event is practically impossible.  Each summer 60,000 people from all over the world assemble on a dry desert lake bed in northern Nevada and build a city dedicated to “radical self expression.”  For the week that this city exists, it is filled with incredible art, dazzling performances, and workshops on everything from solar power to shamanic healing to community development.  Money is not allowed in this city.  Everything is free.  And the experience perpetuates itself through a “culture of gifting,” where you are expected to contribute to the city in whatever way you can.  If you’re a penniless artist, the city will offer you an art grant, and your contribution is a work of art.  If you’re a massage therapist, you’re expected to gift random massages to tired-looking people on the street, or to set up a massage booth several hours a day.  If you’re a wealthy dot-com magnate, you bring a massive dance club and bar, or a restaurant, or you sponsor tickets for those who can’t afford them.

This was my fourth year at Burning Man, and I can’t really imagine my life without it.  Immersing yourself in a city that completely rejects our societal norms…gender roles…decorum and formality and pomp and circumstance…is incredibly refreshing.  At Burning Man, you are expected to be completely and utterly yourself.  No one is going to criticize you for looking and acting however you want.  Burning Man is a place of supreme acceptance, peace, and joy.

But it’s no easy task getting there.  I left for Burning Man 6 days before its gates opened.  2 days before that, though, I was cooking up a storm.  I smoked 2 pork shoulders.  I turned 2 briskets into beef jerky.  And I made GALLONS of hummus and babaganouj (smoked eggplant and sesame dip).  I froze everything, put it into 2 coffin-sized coolers along with all my gear for a month, and headed west.

I made a small detour to visit my parents, way out in Snyder, Texas.  Since MasterChef, I don’t get to visit them as often as I used to because my schedule is so busy.  Mom made a delicious breakfast of farm eggs, blueberry pancakes, and fresh raw goat milk.  Delicious!

All too soon, back to the road.  I wanted to make Tucson that night, so I could arrive in Phoenix for lunch with the incomparable Monti Carlo, so that I could arrive in Apple Valley, CA in time for dinner with Stacey.  By the time I arrived at Monti’s house, though, she was in tears, frantically cooking.

“What’s wrong, sweetheart?”

“My watch party is tonight and all these people are coming…”

But I could tell that wasn’t what was bothering her.  I gave her that “tell me what’s REALLY wrong” look.

“Tonight’s my night to go.”

I felt like such a terrible friend at that moment.  Here I am, rushing to get to Stacey’s house, and tonight is a really big, scary night for Monti.  The night she gets eliminated from MasterChef.

“I have to stay, then,” I said.

“Are you crazy, dude?!?  Stacey’s husband just went deep sea fishing and has pounds and pounds of tuna for you guys to eat.  You have to go.  I’ll be fine.”

We chatted about Burning Man for a bit and I convinced her that she HAD to come next year.  We’re gonna have a MasterChef camp with a full kitchen and have mystery box challenges, and feed the good people of Burning Man INCREDIBLE food.  That cheered her up a bit, but I still felt like a dirtbag when I drove off.

It’s about 6 hours from Monti’s house to Stacey’s house, through the barren Mojave Desert.  Stacey lives (…or, rather, lived) in Apple Valley, California.  A tiny village (by California standards) that most people have never heard of.  But *I* know it well, as it’s the closest town to the Deep Creek hot springs…an extraordinary set of wilderness hot springs in a wild canyon, only a few short hours from Los Angeles.  I’ve soaked there so often, it’s entirely possible that I been there at the same time Stacey was there…even a decade ago, when she was still in high school.  She and her friends frequented the hot springs back then, which is when I was soaking there most frequently.  How crazy is that?!?

Stacey lives (er…lived) at the end of a long dirt road, smack dab up against a big granite mountain, in one of the coolest houses I’ve ever seen.  Small, cozy, eclectic, absolutely FILLED with fresh produce.  Stacey manages a farmer’s market, so she’s always bringing home gifts from the farmers.  Her decorations are literally almost entirely edible.  Lemons and avocados were stuffed in every available corner of every room, even the bathroom.

And then, of course, there was Stacey.  Her personality on the show was so big and bold, that I was completely taken aback by how tiny she is.  She must weigh 80 pounds soaking wet.  But one of the brightest and most joyful souls I’ve ever met.  The first thing she did was shove a bowl of poke into my arms.  THEN she hugged me.  (Poke is pronounced “PO-kay” and it’s a Hawaiian specialty of raw fish marinated with soy and citrus, mixed with a variety of ingredients like onion, seaweed, sesame seeds, etc.  It’s one of my favorite things in all the world.)

Her fridge and several coolers were overflowing with fresh tuna and other fish that her hubby Mike and his buddies had caught.  And Stacey pulled out the stops and created a menu based entirely around raw fish.  Take a look:

The party was going in full force out in her backyard, which is easily the coolest entertaining space I’ve seen.  Funky, hippy, Bohemian, southwestern shabby chic.  I felt right at home.

Stacey and Mike love to entertain, and I enjoyed reading her “Party Rules” board:

She has a pond where rosemary (a desert plant) and ginger (a tropical plant) are growing side-by-side.  Over in the corner is her extensive container garden:

Stacey lives next door to her parents, who are delightful people.  Their backyard is also incredible, with a huge waterfall, and an outdoor kitchen to rival anything I’ve ever seen.   Stacey is Italian, so her family obviously has to have a pizza oven, and this one puts my little homemade oven to shame:

After a tour, we were back in the kitchen cooking and eating.  One of Stacey’s favorite things to make is sushi.  (Ironic, because she was eliminated from MasterChef after a sushi challenge.)  Her spicy tuna rolls were absolutely divine.

We literally gorged on raw fish.  MasterChef was playing in the background, but I wanted to watch Monti’s farewell episode in private rather than a party setting, so I ignored it.  We talked long into the night about how MasterChef had changed our lives.  Stacey and I felt like we’d known each other all our lives…I felt so connected to her so quickly.  She and Mike are definitely my kinda people.  Eventually I drifted off to sleep on her couch, and I awoke the next morning to this:

If that’s not being pampered, I don’t what what is!  It’s a plate of cheeses, fruit, and nuts, and on the side is a serving of poke, underneath of which is a shot of smoked tomato water.  !!!  Lucky me!

It was a busy morning.  Stacey was canning her homemade barbeque sauce, which I was lucky enough to taste (and then get a pint of!).  Stacey puts even more ingredients in her sauce than I do.  Her base is smoked tomatoes, which is totally genius.  And one of her many “secret” spices is fenugreek.  Her sauce is EASILY the most complex and delicious I’ve ever tasted.

In addition to BBQ sauce, there was a whole yellowtail left from the night before, and it had to be dealt with.  Stacey stuffed it full of lemons from her grandmother’s tree and herbs from her garden, filled the body cavity with aromatics, and Mike smoked it out back.  While it was smoking, though, Stacey had plans.

“See that mountain behind the house?  Let’s climb it!”

I strapped on my hiking boots and she and I headed for the hills.  20 minutes later (it seemed MUCH longer), we topped out about 800 feet above her house on the pinnacle of the granite crag.  I had been driving for 2 days, and it felt so good to use by body for a change.  But by the time we got back down, we were sweating like crazy, so we plunged into her parents’ saltwater pool and talked about her impending move to the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where she’s going to start a restaurant and sell her BBQ sauce and several other artisan items in the farmers’ market.  She was sad to leave this incredible place that she and Mike have truly made their own.  But excited to be moving to a place exploding with life and abundance, where life moves at a slower pace, and where food and the land are considered sacred.

I was sad to leave Stacey’s house.  We spent barely 20 hours together, but I had grown incredibly fond of her and Mike both.  There are some people you meet in this world who share the same soul…the same ideals.  I am so excited to visit Stacey in Kauai (where she already is!) and see how she’s putting down her new Hawaiian roots!  Follow Stacey’s adventure here.

Then I drove into Los Angeles to meet…FELIX!  I don’t think ANY contestant this year on MasterChef was more intriguing to be from the start.  I absolutely adored Felix.  I don’t think they featured her enough, and I don’t think she was eliminated fairly.  From talking to my friends from this season, they all just raved about Felix and what a unique person she is.

Moments after arriving at her West Hollywood apartment, she had a katana at my throat.  *giggle*

Felix is a fascinating girl.  Hysterically funny with one of the most expressive faces I’ve ever seen.  She’s sexy and brassy and bold, but at the same time, shy and quiet and diminutive.  Felix has been working as a food runner at one of LA’s most famous fine-dining restaurants for awhile, and has just been promoted to a server, which means the potential for a BIG increase in pay.  So I’m really happy for her.  Of course, she wants to be in the kitchen, and with her determination, she’ll be there in no time.  But she’s such a people person, like me, I’m not sure being cooped up in a commercial kitchen is for her.  Maybe she should be doing underground dinners, like Jennie Kelley and I are with FRANK, where she can interact with the people she’s cooking for…

Felix and Tanya and I met up with my sweet little Peanut (Esther, from my season) and had dinner in Korea Town.  Tanya has been living in LA, staging (the culinary equivalent of interning) at restaurants and has now gotten a paid job at a bakery.  Tanya, like David Martinez and Michael Chen, plunged head-first into the culinary world after MasterChef ended, and is serious about turning her passion for food into her career.  I’m so proud of her!

It was fun having this little cross-season dinner.  Esther hasn’t had time to watch the current season, so she had no idea who Tanya and Felix were.  But they shared the same intense experience that Esther and I did, and Tanya and Felix are very close, like Esther and I are.

After dinner, I got to meet Felix’s adorable boyfriend.  They’ve known each other for years, since they both lived in Puna…the southeastern district of the Big Island of Hawaii, which is where I’m trying to move to start my farm.  They are an adorable couple.  But all too early, I had to leave for San Diego, because the clock was ticking, and I still had to cook a week’s worth of food for 30 people before Burning Man.

In San Diego I met up with my dearest friends Nate and Sandy.  I’ve known them for 17 years, since college.  They just gave birth to their first child scarcely a month before I arrived, and for some reason they decided to play host to our “base camp” for Burning Man this year…as if they didn’t have their hands full with baby!  Normally they go to Burning Man with us, but certainly not this year.  Though it was a bit of torture for them, watching us all get ready for the event, knowing they weren’t going.

My dear friend Raspberry, who I’ve known for more than a decade, and my best buddy Monty (my old college roomie) arrived in town from the Pacific Northwest, and the first order of business upon arrival was hair dyeing.  At Burning Man, if you look “normal,” you’re probably not expressing yourself radically.  So for the past 3 years, I’ve dyed my hair some crazy color, and Raspberry decided to join me this year.  (Raspberry isn’t his real name, but we call each other Raspberry because of a random connection to Carol Channing’s character in the film Thoroughly Modern Millie…long story.)  So we started the laborious transformation which first requires bleaching your hair until it’s almost white.


After that, it’s 2 hours of heating the shocking color into your bleached hair, followed by careful washing, followed by an apple cider vinegar soak to raise the pH and seal in the color.  And you end up with this:

Early the next morning, it was grocery shopping time.  Buying enough food, beer, snacks, and camping supplies for 30 people for a week is no small matter.  This was the bill at the FIRST stop:

And that was just the first.  I spent well over $2,000 that morning.  Then we went to the extraordinary home belonging to my friends Mark and Elaine to start cooking.  We had to make Pad Thai, sesame noodles, chicken salad, chicken with saffron rice,  pasta salad, braised cabbage, beans…and then freeze it all with dry ice.  Thankfully, Elaine and Raspberry are both superb cooks, so we made short time of it.  Mark and Elaine’s kids even got involved.

Mark and Elaine are my kinda folks.  They grow much of their own food, they have an AMAZING chicken coop filled with layers, and their kids have incredibly broad palates.  (They were scarfing down my vinegary braised cabbage like it was candy.)  When we were finished, I was able to introduce the kids to the wonders of dry ice…I remember being so mesmerized by it when I was a kid.

With food cooked and frozen solid and our massive infrastructure loaded into the 22′ truck, we headed north to Reno, stopping along the way to pick up my new friend Denis.  I met Denis on my last trip out west, 3 months ago, at a hot spring just south of Yellowstone.  (Blog coming soon.)  He’s one of the more fascinating people I’ve met.  He started college when he was 16, in a quadruple major program: Mathematics, Economics, Russian, and Ceramic Arts.  (???)  After 4 years of intense study, he needed a break, so he had spent the past year working in California’s Youth Conservation Corps, building trails and fighting fires in the wilderness.  Denis is the biggest social butterfly I’ve ever met, so when he decided to come to Burning Man with us, I knew it was going to be an amazing experience for him.  Especially since he would turn 21 during the event!

Sunday morning we rendezvoused with a large contingent from our camp for breakfast at Peg’s Glorified Ham and Eggs, my favorite eatery in Reno.  Promise me that you will NEVER visit Reno without eating there.  They have 3 locations around this VERY small town, and each of them are jam packed every day of the week.  Peg’s is legendary for huge portions…in fact they serve most of their entrees inside a massive skillet.  Denis is legendary for packing away food, so he ordered the full 1-pound ham steak, 3 eggs, hash browns, cabbage slaw, fried bananas, and a thick slice of cantaloupe.  3 minutes after it arrived, it was gone:

And that wasn’t all.  I could only stuff HALF my tamale skillet into my stomach, so Denis finished mine.  And then Raspberry needed help with his plate.  Denis basically polished off about 8 pounds of food for breakfast…a good thing because as much as he was about to bounce around Burning Man, missing half the meals in camp, he’d need all the calories he could get!

After breakfast, a few hours to gather last-minute supplies, and then it was off to Burning Man…about a 2 hour drive northeast of Reno in the high desert.  The route passes Pyramid Lake, a massive inland sea named for a natural rock formation near the shore.  This is the home of the Pyramid Lake tribe, who have lived in this desert for centuries.

Your eyes are weary, and my fingers are sore.  And we have YET to arrive at Burning Man.  So I’ll let you off the hook for now, and pick back up again tomorrow.  I have amazing stories and images and videos about Burning Man to share with you, and perhaps an even more amazing account of the long journey home afterward.  So why don’t you go ahead and subscribe to my blog in the upper right corner of this page, to make sure you don’t miss another post!