Twice a month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau pops to chime in about a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!
Tearing up the blistering blacktop of the 99 between the bottom of the Grapevine and Fresno isn't exactly my idea of fun but it does have something to look forward to as you blaze past Delano, Tulare and Selma. Hang a right at Fabulous Fresburg, saunter your way through the Sierra Foothills, power up what we call the "four lane" and you'll find yourself entering the Sierra National Forest and, well, quite a bit more than a little slice of paradise.
During the winter, the road over 9000' Kaiser Pass is snowbound so we need to have our heads and asses wired together when it comes to properly closing the place up, a job I've helped with now for my whole run up there. This year, however, real life obligations came a knocking and I missed the close for the first time in a decade. This got me to thinkin' about how much the place has meant to me and what makes it so special. It's a real loss not to be there right now.
Wedged between Kings Canyon and Yosemite (and at the end of a 23 mile long, goat path of a "road") lies Vermilion Valley Resort, buried deep in the heart of the Ansel Adams wilderness and a mere 13 miles from Mammoth Lakes, as the crow flies. Of course, there is no direct road to Mammoth from where we're at; in fact, a well-heeled hiker could probably walk to Mammoth faster than you or I could drive the circuitous route up and over Tioga Pass. This place — VVR as it is affectionately known — is where I have spent nearly two decades of summers cooking. We are also one of the resupply points for hikers on the John Muir and Pacific Crest trails so we see a lot of peeps who have been barely getting by for weeks on dehydrated food and trail mix. They say there are no atheists in foxholes and the same is true in the Sierra, especially the really remote parts. It's hiker friendly enough in the High Country but cold, wet and hungry can be the default settings for a fair share of the hikers we see come through our joint.
Here in OC, the dining public has it pretty easy as far as restaurants go–too easy, I believe. There is a shop for every culinary desire and some poor shlub working there that has to cater to every customer's wish, crazy or not. I'll cop to the fact that I'm jaded and, most likely, part of the problem. Hopefully, not as bad as the Corona Del Mar housewives who spend 50 bucks a day on organic, vegan food for their pets then verbally berate the help when their pooch can't keep it down. (NOTE: dogs aren't supposed to eat quinoa). Even my most grounded friends in The Biz can get all crappy at times about their dining experiences. And there are actually places on this planet where people are grateful for a morsel or scrap to eat of any kind.
At VVR we are a solid two hours from Fresno and there is no Restaurant Depot or Smart and Final nearby to solve any last minute fuckups, so you make do. That goes for guests too. An occasional High Country head check is a good thing when it comes to the teachings of gratitude and gentle hospitality. We get a few folks who come in tired, half-starved and, worst of all, broke. They don't want to be a burden but, when push comes to shove, it's simply the right thing to give them a hot meal and a warm bunk to crash in. (Maybe help with the dishes in exchange.) That is called humanity.
There is a simple, primal, human quality to providing someone with sustenance, especially when it is genuinely appreciated. That is in contrast to what can be, at times, a self-serving desire here in the OC to prove how cutting edge a chef can be. Sitting by our cast iron stove, jawing with the cowboys and backpackers as they sip their coffee, is a one of a kind experience and so much of what we do up there is deeply appreciated by those who cross our path. To feed people out of a genuine desire to be gracious and have the sentiment returned feels, well, just plain 'ol good. It's heartwarming when I hand off that bomb-ass, foil-wrapped breakfast burrito "to go" and know I'm gonna make some northbound hiker's day when they're eating it high atop Silver Pass on their way to Yosemite. That's a feeling all too rare here at sea level. It shouldn't be and the time away from the excesses of the Orange County food scene is a lesson in grounding that many of my contemporaries should share. What we do is far simpler (and should be more genuine) than we make it out to be.
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