It was big news earlier this year when Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm announced that lauded Chef Tamara Stanger would be joining the culinary team as executive chef. Her award-winning journey as a chef, with a background in desert cuisine, Utah culinary tradition, hunting, growing and foraging, make her a natural collaborator in the “fanciful Four Corners food” served at the Boulder, Utah restaurant. While the news sparked questions about change coming to a beloved icon, the main difference is more room for sustainability, balance and creativity. Hell’s Backbone is a gastronomic powerhouse. Woman-owned and woman-led, the unique restaurant stands out in a world where the achievements of female restaurateurs are often overlooked. From Jen and Blake, the Founders and Chefs de Cuisine; Tamara, the Executive Chef; Jen Martinez, the new Sous-Chef; Morgan, General Manager, and Kate McCarty, the Farm Manager—the entire leadership team continues to preserve the culinary legacy at Hell’s Backbone Grill.
Study indigenous foodways and the culinary history in the Southwestern United States, and you will find mention of the “Three Sisters” (always capitalized because they nourish life in the desert). Squash, Corn and Beans were planted together because they help each other grow in arid landscapes. The cornstalks serve poles for the beans to climb; the beans fix nitrogen in the soil and stabilize the corn, and the squash leaves shade the ground and help the soil retain water. Speaking to Chef Blake, Chef Jen and Chef Tamara, I couldn’t help but feel as though these women are coming together as a similar trio of sisters. “Tamara, she gets us,” says Jen. “She’s making beautiful things in the kitchen.” “We feel like we’re old soul sisters, all of us,” adds Blake. “Blake and Jen are the chefs here,” says Tamara. “I’m here to support. We’re going to work together to tell the story of food and place in deeper detail.”
“All I need to be happy is honest work and honest food“
If there was ever a chef homegrown to join a restaurant in a town of under 250 permanent residents, that chef is Tamara. “I grew up in the small town of Eureka, Utah. The closest grocery store was an hour away. So, we grew our food, we foraged our food and we hunted our food. The moment I got to Boulder, I felt at home. I definitely belong here.”
Chef Tamara’s mother owned a small restaurant when she was growing up, “Nothing fancy, just country food.” But that legacy of nourishing people runs deep in Tamara’s soul. “I’ll never forget why we’re cooking in the first place.” she says. “I want it to have integrity and to tell a story. Hell’s Backbone Grill is the perfect environment for that and for me to progress as a person and to be happy. That is going to reflect in the food, too. When all of us are happy and living our best life, the food will be the best it’s ever been. That’s all I need to be happy, is honest work and honest food.”
Preserving food stories and histories
Part of the honest food story at Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm is the staunch commitment to serving only locally grown, harvested, foraged or produced food. You won’t find scallops on the menu. Ever. It is part of why the farm is so integral to the operation—it provides a steady stream of seasonal and sustainable produce to the restaurant. “Our plan has always been to honor the food of this place, food that made sense at the edge of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument,” says Blake. “Whether it was naturalized food, indigenous food or even the food grown on the farm and invasive edible weeds, we use it. That has always been the whole point.”
Chef Tamara is a dedicated food historian and brings her passion for the land and tradition to the kitchen. “I’m not one of those chefs who just finds an ingredient and puts it on the menu because it sounds cool,” she says. “I care about the history of an ingredient, recipe or food and want to honor people who brought that food here and cultivated it. For example, Utah food is known generally as ‘pioneer food,’ casseroles and food that can feed a lot of people. But to me, there’s more meaning. It’s about all the people who built Utah, which includes the people who inhabited it first, whose land this is, the Indigenous people.”
Immigrants to the Four Corners region also play a huge part in the edible story of the area. From Mormon pioneers to Asian immigrants who came to work on the railroads, there are many people’s histories to explore and combine. And Jen, Blake and Tamara are here for it.
A recipe for creativity
Little known fact: sooner or later, almost every successful restaurant brings in an executive chef hired by the original chefs so they can do more.
There is not a single restaurant at the caliber of Hell’s Backbone that doesn’t have an executive chef carrying on the vision. Jen and Blake aren’t going anywhere; they’re in the restaurant and kitchen everyday. They’re just expanding the depth and breadth of what’s possible, adding another pillar to support one of America’s finest restaurants.
“We’re going to bring back some of the things we haven’t been able to do in years because we haven’t had the depth on our bench in the kitchen. Now, collectively, we can all shine,” says Blake. “A cool thing about Tam is that she grew up the way me and Jen did. None of us went to chef school. We all grew up underprivileged, and the cost of those schools was prohibitively high. All of us wanted to cook, and we all got jobs in the industry at a very young age. I was 11, Jen was 14 and Tam was probably 9.”
Make room for the pie
One of the things Chef Tamara brings to the HBG kitchen is her skill in making pies—a skill learned from her mother. “I love pie. It’s probably one of my favorite things to make. I’ve made millions of pies, and I’m never going to stop,” she says. “Pie is one of the first foods in the world. Almost every dish out there started as pie. In Utah, when the pioneers came, many of the foods they ate were in a pastry crust. The miners would have a hand pie in their pocket, and that’s what they would eat for lunch.”
Jen started her career in a bakery and loves churning out baked goods. However, “Over the years, I’ve tried to add pies to the menu,” says Jen. “I’m good at making a pie, no problem. But don’t have the bandwidth make 50 crusts There are so many technical steps to making pie, and then it has to taste good and feel like us.”
Enter the new executive chef.
“There are 100,000 ways to make pie. I’ve used everything in a pie,” says Chef Tamara. “I’ve made a cassoulet pie. I’ve made pies out of rabbits, wild boar or elk. I’ve made Sloppy Joe pies, which sold out in two seconds. Pies bring back childhood longing for food and make you happy. And I’m excited to add pies to the menu.”
An ongoing legacy of food and hospitality
This trio of sisters have culinary influences that date back to mothers and grandmothers who passed their love of food on to their daughters. Each one carried those memories straight into the kitchen at Hell’s Backbone Grill.
For Chef Tamara, “It’s the flavors of the desert, flavors that have that smoky thing that I remember from my mom’s restaurant. And that smell of smoke and fire is always there. There are a lot of plants that grow in the desert that have a distinctive, smoky flavor, like the juniper and the mesquite trees. So for me, it carries a weird nostalgia.”
Jen talks about her grandmother’s house, “the smell of pozole, red chili cooking and a turkey roasting. We had a 15-person family. So making pozole was a two-day project. There are so many levels to what looks like a humble stew.”
IF YOU GO:
Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm
20 N. Highway 1, 435-335-7464
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