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Montclair Times
1/26/2006

A philosophy of kindness is a path to great food

It’s located in a town in Utah which boasts a population of 180. Primarily Mormon. There’s no cell phone service. No medical facilities.

To get there, it seems, you have to drive through a desert over something called the “Hogsback”— a narrow mountain road with no guardrails and vertical drops on both sides that sound totally terrifying.

I’m not likely to head out there any time soon.

So why am I utterly captivated by Hell’s Backbone Grill (www.hellsbackbonegrill.com) and its feisty, committed, beautiful chef/owners Blake Spalding and Jen Castle? Maybe it’s because their book, “With a Measure of Grace: The Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant,” is unlike any I’ve read — and I’ve worked in the cookbook field for more years than I care to admit to.

Or maybe it’s because I was lucky enough to meet them recently and taste an “interpretation” of their remarkable food at an extraordinary wine & food event at New Brunswick’s acclaimed Stage Left Restaurant (http://www.stageleft.com).

Most likely, though, it’s their philosophy of living and restaurateuring that I find both meaningful and deeply moving.

When presented with the opportunity to open “the kind of restaurant we envisioned in a remote, tiny, tightly knit community, most of whom are Mormon ranchers ... virtually everyone who loved us said we were crazy,” they write in their book, which in addition to offering an array of lush photographs and tantalizing recipes recounts their sorrows and successes as co-owners of this very special but utterly remote locale.

“We were being given the chance to go far away from everyone we knew [to] cook and serve whatever we pleased and put our theories into practice. We wanted to run a restaurant with heart, and to do so organically and with environmental awareness. We would follow Buddhist principles of right livelihood. We would offer only place-based, regionally relevant cuisine made from scratch. We would source locally for produce and employees and serve as an example of responsible growth in a town in need of economic stimulus.”

And so they have – for six years running – in what has been called “the most remote town in the lower 48”: Boulder, Utah.

But don’t think for a minute these babes are self-righteous or preachy. In fact, they’re spirited and funny, self-deprecating and passionate. The kind of people you’d enjoy hanging out with.

“What’s your philosophy of running a restaurant?” I asked. “Essentially, it’s a philosophy of kindness,” Blake replied thoughtfully. “I’m a practicing Buddhist, and Jen and I have a filter that we run all our decisions through: how will this choice affect the planet, our community of guests, and our town. I guess you’d call it a path of personal integrity.”

They grow their own vegetables, fruit, herbs, and edible flowers (natch). They serve local organic farm eggs with yolks the color of mango. Because they believe in compassionate consumption, they serve beef, lamb, and pork – but prior to a slaughter, offer gratitude, prayers, and a special tincture prepared by Tibetan Buddhist lamas to benefit the animals in future lives. They’re in the middle of a desert, so they serve no fish. “But we love butter and salt,” Jen laughed. And wine. And they make a wicked Chocolate Chile Pot de Creme.

As we walked into Stage Left, we were handed Rosemary Margaritas as our coats were whisked away. Owner Francis Schott was behind the bar, explaining what inspired him to create this particular libation. His partner, Mark Pascal, was at work in the dining room.

“It was inspired by the Rosemary Limeade recipe in the book,” Francis said. “It’s made with rosemary-infused Cointreau and egg whites,” which gave it a fabulous frothy look.

The night was clearly off to a good start.

“What prompted you to orchestrate this dinner?” I queried. “Blake and Jen were recommended as guests for our daily radio show” (“The Restaurant Guys,” WCTC-1450AM, 11 a.m.-noon). “Our producer checked them out, we got a copy of the book, and we thought it was a nice idea.

“I had barely skimmed the book, so the night before the show,” Francis continued, “I grabbed it, figuring I could read through it in less than an hour. I pulled an all-nighter; I couldn’t put it down.

“After we did the interview — which was so good, we expanded it to two hours and made two shows out of it — we corresponded back and forth, saying, ‘If you’re ever on the East Coast, come by.’ And they’d say, ‘If you’re ever in Boulder, do the same!’ Anyhow, it all worked out.”

So how did they settle on the evening’s menu, which began with a stellar Jalapeño and Avocado Soup with Lobster & Cilantro Foam, and included Cornmeal Pecan Skillet Fried Salmon with Brown Butter & Molasses and Seared Long Island Duck with Rose Hip, Sage & Sweet Potato Skillet Cakes? Plus a variety of cheeses from small American producers. And did I mention the dessert tasting of Pinon Caramel Sticky Buns and Gingerbread in Caramel Sauce?

Wait, I’ve forgotten the appetizers, which were incredibly tasty: Little dollops of Salmon Mousse on Housemade Potato Chips, and Venison with Caramelized Onions Plus amazing wines, and a couple more courses. It was enormously satisfying.

“I give the chef, Anthony Bucco, a lot of credit,” Blake acknowledged. “They took our menu and the recipes from the book, and did a creative spin to make it relevant to this region. We cooked with them today to put on the finishing touches — made some sauces, that sort of thing — but I really have to sing Anthony’s praises.” As did we, believe me.

Over dinner, Francis commented, “There’s a way that people can eat – should eat – that’s antithetical to the way that agribusiness and corporate America tells us how to eat. What Jen and Blake do with their food is what we try to do here: keep things local, support small producers, keep farmers on their farms. That’s the way to get great food.

“’With a Measure of Grace’ is not just a cookbook; it’s about how a restaurant brought a community together. To be a locus of community: that’s what we aspire to be, too.”

If your schedule won’t allow a trip to Hell’s Backbone Grill any time soon, do the next best thing: go to Amazon.com (or the restaurant’s Web site) and order a copy of the book. New Brunswick, at least, is a lot easier to get to. So make a reservation for dinner at Stage Left. You won’t be disappointed.

IN THIS COLUMN:

  • Hell’s Backbone Grill: No. 20 North Highway 12, Boulder, Utah (435) 335-7464
  • Stage Left: 5 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick (732) 828-4444

Karen Schloss Diaz is a partner of diaz • schloss communications, a Montclair-based restaurant marketing and consulting company.


Stage Left | 5 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901 | T: 732.828.4444
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