Foodstuffs: How To Be A Chef When Your Restaurant Is An AMC Hut

Sep 18, 2015

Egg is dripping down Jeff Colt’s bare back as he stands in the kitchen of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Greenleaf Hut just below Mount Lafayette. Such is the peril of carrying about 28 pounds of eggs along with 50 pounds of other food.

But then again, running a restaurant high in The White Mountains is a little different than running one in Portsmouth, Laconia or Colebrook.

Colt is the hut master at Greenleaf. He just arrived with boxes of food strapped to a pack board, a backpack that's basically a straight wooden frame with straps. It's used because its capacity - you can stack box after box so high it looks like you are carrying a small apartment building.

It’s Wednesday. That’s a resupply day and Colt has just finished the 2.9-mile hike up the Old Bridle Path. It includes a stretch known as agony ridge because it is steep and rocky and often tuckers out hikers with 10-pound day packs.

Colt figures he carried almost 80 pounds – a bit more than he hoped - and minutes after he arrives he’s unpacking it.

“So, I brought up 15 cartons of eggs, that box of produce on the counter there is an assortment, well, like two big bags of lettuce, with I think, eight or ten heads each. Probably 12 peppers. A few onions in this box. Some celery. Some broccoli. And, then, more onions in my little pack there.

"The critical supplies for our salads and our cooking needs. We have three packers today all carrying up everything from frozen peas and frozen kind of veggies to frozen chicken, entire frozen pork loins, all sorts of goods.”

AMC’s eight huts serve meals between June and October. Last year the supplies crews carried into the mountains included 2,300 pounds of beef; 700 pounds of mozzarella cheese, 1,200 pounds of pork loin and 173 turkeys weighing about 3,000 pounds, says AMC spokesman Rob Burbank.

About 76,000 meals were served in all.

Usually there are four “croo" members at the hut. While Colt unloads,  Morgan LaPointe, Mary Sackbauer and Nate Iannuccillo are working in the kitchen – which is adjacent and visible from the dining and visiting area. Think open concept.

Crew members take turns being cook of the day and Colt says the culinary expertise varies considerably.

“This is a real fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants operation in terms of learning to cook," he says.

But there is a secret ingredient that provides a safety net for ravenous guests.

As preparations are underway for dinner that secret ingredient sits on a table in the middle of the kitchen. It is a well-used, thick binder full of recipes. It is for hut- not haute, cuisine - and the goal was making it simple and clear enough that anybody who can follow directions can cook.

Colt says, sometimes experienced cooks – like Moms – find some of the directions alarming.

“It makes cooking pretty much as easy as one, two, three. I remember one time my Mom was up visiting me. I was cooking lasagna that night and I was getting ready to assemble my lasagna and with our lasagna recipe you don’t cook the noodles before hand.

"They cook right in the pan. And, my Mom just had a panic attack. She’s like: 'I won’t let you serve this to the guests! That is not going to cook, Jeff. You need to cook the noodles before hand.

"I was like, Mom, I know that the cookbook would tell me that if that were the case. It is such a straight forward effort I know there are no curve balls in here.”

His mother walked off.

But the lasagna worked out fine and Colt says his mother apologized.

The book offers guidance beyond cooking time. For example there’s a page about making soup, which is always the first course in the huts.

“Your soup is the first date of your meal with the guests. As such you want it looking fine and smelling good.”

There are also warnings about things that have not worked well including the recipe from a former crew member.

"Bob Kirchner’s Memorial pancake recipe has been removed, like the communist government of Poland, by a workers’ uprising. Bob’s cakes stuck to the grill like tar, were raw in the middle and burnt on the outside.”

The main course is the same at all the huts so hikers going from hut to hut will have something different each night. For example, all the hut dinners have turkey the same night.

But the cook of the day has lots of flexibility with other parts of the meal, says crew member LaPointe, who is currently on duty.

“We start dinner with soup. Every night. I’m making black bean suit. And then bring out bread. I made a cheesy garlic bread.

"That is followed by salad, which is probably going to have nuts and craisins on it and a lot of lettuce. It is usually a pretty simple salad. We generally make a sort of herb vinaigrette for our salad dressing mostly because that is what I think the crew thinks is the most delicious.

"The main entree entrée is a turkey, which is in the oven. And for the two vegetarians here I am going to make falafel, so I have some chick peas out. There’ll be cranberry sauce and peas with the turkey and then pie. Which I need to check.”

Greenleaf can handle 48 hikers. They sit at four long tables, and they are summoned to meals by everything from Iannuccillo’s trombone solo to kitchen-based percussion instruments which look remarkably like pots, spoons and ladles.

It’s all family style with dishes passed around the table, finishing with dessert and coffee.

“So, now we’re going to start out with a coffee count,” says LaPointe. “So, please raise your hand if you would like regular. And please raise your hand if you would like irregular….decaf.”

Then, dishes are cleared and the croo members plop down around a table in the kitchen for their dinner. All the lights are out at 9:30.

And about 5:00 am Colt is up. He’s the cook of the day, making oatmeal and donuts and pancakes and bacon….and as soon as breakfast is over it’s time for him to start working on dinner.