Chef John Murcko was named “Best Chef in Utah of 2011” by Salt Lake Magazine. Let me say that again: He’s not just the best chef in Park City, the pristine ski town known for its upper-class residents and proximity to one of the biggest indie film festivals in the world, but in the whole irregular hexagon that is the state of Utah. He oversees two dozen or so spots in Park City, and his award-winning philosophy is to simply care about the environment and insist upon knowing not only where all of his organic, mountain-grown ingredients come from, but knowing the people who bring him that food. A life dedicated to the industry affords him those types of relationships.
Story goes you were interested in becoming a chef very early in life. When most parents were watching their boys disappear over the hills on bikes and skateboards, your dad was signing a waiver so you could wash dishes in a restaurant at the age of 14. On your request. Can you tell us more about being born in Michigan, and how you were able to find your passion so early in life?
I grew up in a town called Holly, Michigan. My father was in advertising and PR, and he had to travel to places like New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. He started taking us kids separately on trips. Dad was what I call a passionate diner, and he sought out great restaurants. When I was about 10, he took me to Manhattan and we ate at Tavern on the Green – in the garden room. I vividly remember him introducing me to artichokes there, and how to peel off the leaf to get at the meat. On another trip, we went to The Russian Tea Room. The maitre d’ had to loan me a coat to wear. I consider that a turning point in my interest in restaurants – I thought that maitre d’ was the ultimate guy I wanted to grow up to be like.
We also spent a lot of time at a house we had on Mackinac Island (in northern Michigan); this was our sanctuary as a family. We also became members of the Grand Hotel, which has operated since 1887. I loved eating at this historic hotel, watching the synchronized service in a dining room of 300 people. I was enchanted. Both my Dad, and a passionate Grandma, thought I should start in the bottom of the business. So my first job was washing dishes at a place called Little Bob’s – a family restaurant that was in business for nearly 50 years. It was just a little family restaurant with a buffet, but he obviously knew how to run a restaurant. (Little Bob’s closed in 1994.)
After the dish-washing gig, and waaaay before you were named Best Chef in Utah by Salt Lake Magazine in 2011, there must have been other paths you considered. What greener grass almost pulled you in a different direction, or what kept you moving forward in a straighter line than most? To prepare you for where you are today, what has your professional background been like?
My brother always said, “If you want to be great at what you do, play with people better than you.” So early in my career, I moved a lot. I moved every six months to a year to a different restaurant, looking for the next mentor to learn from. Then, in my 20s, I came to Park City and I met someone I stayed with for 16 years. That was (legendary Park City restaurateur) Bill White.
Other paths? There are two I almost considered; when I came to Park City, I thought I wanted to get out of hot kitchens and be a pastry chef instead. I thought it offered better balance; I would no longer have to depend on a team and could be individually responsible for myself. I did that for a little while, but there’s nothing quite like cooking. Second, through the fault of budget and timeline, prior to the opening of a Park City restaurant (Grappa), I was also the lead carpenter. I really liked it, and found that I had some natural abilities. I liked the similarity of outcome that you get with cooking – you could go back and see the results of your labor. I also liked that you could have your nights free and not be cooking until 2am.
In the end, however, the things that frustrated me most when I was younger have become the greatest joys of cooking for me. At first, like many chefs, I wanted to do everything myself and control everything. (No one can touch my sauce!) But now, I love being a great mentor and watching young people progress (from sous chef to executive chef, etc.). It makes everything better, you get more done, the quality goes up when you become a great leader, teacher, and mentor – not just a chef.
Partnered with the Toronto-based Talisker Corporation, you oversee two dozen different dining venues in Park City. How exactly did that come about, and how is that even possible to manage?
Talisker had a vision for food and beverage and flew in chefs from all over, but they couldn’t find someone who they felt understood the company culture. Dana Keele, human resources director for Canyons, said she knew someone right here in Park City and reached out to me through my wife, Kelli. After 16 years at Bill White, I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. Over the course of several interviews, they determined I was the person who understood their company culture of integrity and quality.
An average day must always be above average; can you walk us through your upcoming week? What are some of the more interesting responsibilities?
(laughing) Right now we’re preparing for some really exciting events for the Sundance Film Festival, while making menu and system adjustments on our flagship restaurant, The Farm. During Sundance, our restaurants are packed, we’re catering private parties and events, and we have a ton of VIP functions. For example, we’ll create comprehensive dining “experiences” in our yurts, which are beautifully appointed, private circular tents. On top of all that, this year, Talisker is catering Artist at the Table, the $1,500/plate Sundance Festival Kickoff dinner that accompanies the Opening Night Premiere film. Worth magazine named it one of the 10 hottest tickets for all events last year. It’s an incredible opportunity to showcase what we do for hundreds of interesting people including Mr. (Robert) Redford himself. So, January is always an exciting time – we’re incorporating enhancements based on the holiday season and making sure everything is fine-tuned for Sundance, President’s Day weekend, and the rest of the ski season. Plus, right now I’m hosting “Chef Tryouts” – I’m bringing in chefs to cook for me as I’m always looking for chefs who can complement and add to what we do.
Standing in the open kitchen of The Farm, one of Talisker’s flagship restaurants that focuses on ingredients sourced within 200 miles away of Park City, you have the perfect view of skiers and boarders descending the slopes. In fact, Ski Beach is just a snowball’s throw away. How do you not turn off your burners and grab your skis? If that’s not the biggest challenge of your job, then what is?
Any successful chef finds as much joy from cooking as anything else. It’s not a job – it’s a passion that I truly love. There are times when I work 100-hour weeks, but I also make time for my family. I moved to the mountains to spend time with my family, and spring and fall, in particular, there are literally countless springs and falls to hike and bike to in the Park City area. I still ski as much as I can, but we have an expression among chefs, “Speed of the chiefs, speed of the tribe.” Right now, the chief and the tribe are both speeding!
Can you tell us about the recently-opened Bistro at Canyons? It’s the first restaurant of its kind in the U.S. serving modern American kosher cuisine, including Friday Sabbath dinner throughout the winter season.
To produce food under any sort of guidelines, does not mean quality has to suffer. I think kosher dining has suffered from a lack of attention and passion. Now, with people exploring dairy-free diets more often, we’re proving we can deliver world-class dining experiences under that guideline. And the quality of all the ingredients, from chicken to meat to produce, is second-to-none. We’re making exceptional, very healthy food. Dishes like the Beef Cheek Gnocchi or the Mustard Crusted Wild Salmon are exquisite! Additionally, the clientele is so appreciative and supportive that we are going the extra mile to serve them. The dining room is spectacular. With 85 seats, we’re able to provide the attention to detail that guests have come to expect of our brand.
Do you have any funny or interesting mountain anecdotes that occurred in the line of duty that you can share? Guests-gone-wild incidents, that kind of thing?
Most are unprintable (laughing). I will say I’ve gotten very creative in using several-carat diamonds as garnishes to entrees in order to help with wedding proposals.
What is the secret to your success? What advice would you give someone who is interested in doing what you do?
One of our secrets is that while this is a town built for tourism, we can’t forget that we’re a community. Every guest is our most important one – but we go out of our way to make sure our locals feel that way all year long.
Since you’re overseeing these two dozen restaurants, your immediate future must be booked solid. Is that the case, or is there something exciting on the horizon for winter/spring and beyond?
Whats on the horizon? Refinement. We’re constantly looking at how we can be better. Summer is more and more of a time for Talisker and Canyons to shine, with more guests hiking, biking, and fishing every year. We’re looking at some exciting ways for our guests to enjoy our beautiful weather – and our great food – long after the snow has melted. Plus, I want to enter and win a National BBQ Cook Off!