Chef offers taste of fine dining east of Gunnison
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Chris Rourke, Courtesy

Imagine dining on tender, juicy prime rib or delicately smoked local trout with truffle chips. Or flatbread with prosciutto and figs. Cowboy caviar — made of corn, beans, peppers, onions and lime zest — sits to the side of your gourmet black bean burger.

Is breakfast your fancy? Then consider peaches and cream french toast or oatmeal with Noosa yogurt, pistachios and peaches. And if dessert is desired, there’s a creamy key lime pie with fresh lime juice which is to die for.

Such a menu typically would be found at an elite resort, such as the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., owned by President Donald Trump. But now a taste of Mar-a-Lago can be found just across the county border, 30 miles east of Gunnison, in the small community of Sargents. A former chef at the famous Trump resort is now serving a new menu at Tomichi Creek Trading Post, right on Hwy. 50. “We’re from Doyleville and just got done with a hike,” said Debbie Weisner Tuesday evening. “The food here is just great.”

Tomichi Creek Trading Post owner Melissa Evans said she hired chef Tammy Hurst after Hurst answered an advertisement in Workamper News. The online publication offers employment opportunities to those who travel in recreational vehicles, exchanging work for living expenses, which Hurst does, traveling with her beagle, Copper.

Hurst, who spent four seasons working at Mar-a-Lago, wasn’t hired for her experience in southern Florida. Rather, she was employed for her new ideas and ability to “change up” the menu.

“She had a lot of great menu ideas and most importantly she wanted to be here,” said Evans. “It’s tough for us to find people who want to be in the middle of nowhere.”

Evans said the goal was to beef up the menu, provide better quality and to draw customers from a larger area such as Pitkin, Parlin, Gunnison and Salida.

Through word of mouth and social media, Hurst’s menu has done just that — even drawing customers from the Front Range. While Evans said the amount of business this summer is about the same as last, she is encouraged that it will continue to grow.

So why would a chef with such credentials and talent want to work for a small establishment in the mountains of southwest Colorado? Hurst said she fell in love with Colorado working at Aspen’s Hotel Jerome with executive chef Rob Zack.

“I had a phenomenal experience at Hotel Jerome,” said Hurst. “I really wanted to go back there this year, but I needed a challenge.”

She found that challenge in Sargents.

“We went from eight burgers and a meatless melt to revamping the whole menu,” said Hurst. “Every good chef is always looking for the next great thing.”

Now, the menu includes turkey pastrami, smoked on the premises for 18 hours with a rub of peppercorn and coriander. It’s served with a caper berry aioli and hearty greens, candied bacon and havarti cheese. Local trout is brined in a salt and sugar mixture for 48 hours, and then smoked. It’s used on bagels. Hurst makes a tawny port reduction to enhance some of the offerings. The approach, said Hurst, is taking Colorado flavor and “clashing” it with the delicacy of Mar-a-Lago.

“That’s what’s happening in Sargents. People are taking photos of the food. They’re taking photos of the kitchen help,” said Hurst. “They’re asking questions. They’re wanting to come in Friday night with groups of 60.”

Hurst said she seeks to continue to come out of her shell. She came to Sargents not knowing how to smoke trout and had never worked off a pellet smoker in a cow pasture. She had no experience with untrained employees, and has taken the opportunity to train wait staff and kitchen workers, showing them how to take their skills to the next level.

“I’m really impressed with them because in the last two months they went (from little experience) to exceptional plating,” she said. “That means they can take these skills and go anywhere and get a higher pay rate and be respected.”

But Hurst also attracted people from Palm Beach to come work with her — six, in fact. At a time when businesses struggle to fill their employment roster, Tomichi Creek Trading Post is fully staffed, providing on-site housing for workers.

Hurst said she will stay through late October or early November and then return to Florida to work on a project on Lake Okeechobee.

Evans is hoping to lure Hurst back to the mountains next year.

“I never know — that’s the challenge,” said Hurst. “It’s calm here. There’s serenity … (and) there’s no traffic.”

As far as getting Donald Trump to visit, she doesn’t think it would be a priority for the 45th president.

“He would only know me by my risotto,” she laughed.

 

(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at chris.rourke@gunnisontimes.com .)