YELLOWSTONE LAKE, Wyo. - Jim Chapman once spent $500 on dinner for himself and his wife, Suzanne.
Needless to say, Chapman gets carried away when it comes to good food. That's why being the executive chef at Yellowstone National Park is the perfect job for the 44-year-old Connecticut native. Chapman came to the park in 2004 and has since innovated ways to buy locally and create a menu that features many sustainable foods.
Chapman works for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, creating dishes for Yellowstone's fanciest dining room at Lake Yellowstone Hotel on the shore of Yellowstone Lake and the other eight dining rooms (which doesn't include the dozens of small delis and restaurants) in the national park. He buys goat cheese from Belgrade, organic lentils from Conrad, Icelandic lamb from Paradise Valley and seafood from Montana Fish Co., in Bozeman, which guarantees fish two days out of the water. But the No. 1 seller on the menu at the Lake Hotel dining room is the bison tenderloin.
"Bison, of course, has a political side. For a while we couldn't put it on the menu, but our new park director approved it and people love it," Chapman said.
The bison tenderloin is farm-raised bison that is covered in cabernet sauvignon sauce and served with fried shallots and garlic mashed potatoes. At $31.50 a plate, it is one of the most expensive items on the menu at Lake Hotel.
Suzanne Chapman is the park's operations manager, and the couple lives in Mammoth Hot Springs.
"When Jim saw this job, it was the dream job of his life. We had always talked about coming to work for a national park when we retire, but we decided to make the move sooner when this opened up," Suzanne said.
For two winters Jim had to snowmobile to work, commuting from their residence at Old Faithful to Mammoth. He no longer has that long cold commute, but the burly 6-footer said he still loves the physical and mental challenges of his job. In mid-August, Jim had only a day's notice to prepare food for President Barack Obama and his family. Jim enlisted fishing guides at Yellowstone Lake to catch two trout for the meal and also cooked Montana-raised beef tenderloin, chicken breasts from South Dakota and wild Alaskan salmon in what Jim referred to as a "sustainable cookout for the Obamas."
"The president made an effort to meet me and had his picture taken with me," Jim said. "I still haven't gotten a copy of it yet, but the Secret Service is sending it."
Suzanne said she was so stunned that President Obama wanted to meet her that she couldn't quite think of anything to say to him.
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"I just shook his hand and said, 'I hope you enjoyed your meal,' which is what I say to everyone."
Jim is on the advisory board of the nonprofit Western Sustainability Exchange, based in Livingston. He said the group has helped him find producers of sustainable foods. Xanterra's goal is to make 50 percent of its food purchases sustainable by the year 2015.
"We're already at 35 percent sustainable," Jim said. "We're leading the way here in Yellowstone for all the Xanterra properties."
Of the 2,700 Xanterra employees working in the summer in Yellowstone Park, 1,000 or them are working in food and beverage services. And the volume of meals served daily in Yellowstone Park is staggering. At Lake Hotel's dining room on a typical summer night, Jim said, they'll serve 550 dinners. Jim personally trains all of the chefs and souse chefs for two weeks in Mammoth before the season opens. Then he travels to the individual kitchens and provides more training for the chefs in their own kitchens.
Jim was originally a computer science major at the University of Connecticut, cooking in restaurants to pay his tuition. He got bored with computers and realized that what he really enjoyed was cooking. So he moved to Clyde Park, N.Y., to attend one of the country's premier culinary schools, the Culinary Institute of America.
He has worked all over the country and did a stint in Switzerland where he learned to appreciate a unique thickening agent - pig's blood.
"They would kill a pig and bring the blood up to the restaurant in old pop bottles. Things like that wouldn't fly here in the U.S."
The Chapmans try to visit Europe once a year to try different cuisines. This year, they were in Amsterdan where, Jim said, he enjoyed one of the best meals of his life. The couple's favorite spot in the U.S. for eating out is Las Vegas. That's where they created the $500 tab at Mandalay Bay's top restaurant.
"Suzanne was pretty mad about that one."