Industry Insiders: John Murcko, Park City’s Reigning Chef

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!

For Father’s Day, Dad Wants Liquor

Screw the tie clip, the sweater, the lawn-care implements. A card is nice if you actually write something in it, but if all you’re going to do is sign the thing, save your $3.99. Absent absurdly expensive toys, Dad bought himself what he wanted long before you knew he wanted it. In fact, forget all that traditional Father’s Day stuff. You’ve put Pops through a lot over the years, and since you can’t give him back the youth you stole from him, the least you can do is give him a brief respite from the noise of the world: Give your dad a good bottle of booze this Sunday. Here are a few favorites that I’d totally expect my brood to offer up if I didn’t already have them.

Whisky: Perhaps the iconic dad spirit, it’s hard to go wrong with a bourbon, rye, or Scotch. I’d be happy uncorking anything from Jack Daniel’s, Dewar’s, or Johnnie Walker. Give dad a great drink and a Scotch education with a fifth of Glenlivet Nadurra 16 ($60), which is bottled at cask strength and is non-chill filtered. It has the flavor of apricots and oak and a healthy kick. If you’re ready to spend some serious – but not quite insane – cash, Talisker 30 is worth every one of the 350 dollars you’ll pay for it. With notes of vanilla, sandalwood, and caramel, he’ll forget about how you took out the lawn gnomes with his Buick that one time.

Tequila: Perhaps your dad prefers an agave-based spirit. If so, head straight to the tequila section of your local booze-mart, where you’ll find an amazing selection of quality bottles that simply weren’t around when he was coming up. While cheaper tequilas work well in margaritas, I’d definitely spend some extra scratch on the primo stuff if he’s just going to be sipping it. Milagro Select Barrel Reserve Silver ($53) has just a touch of grapefruit in its flavor profile, while Jose Cuervo Platino ($60) has citrus notes and a fun assortment of botanicals that dance on the tongue. I absolutely love Gran Patrón Platinum ($200), and offer it to guests who tell me they’ve never had a really good tequila. It’s butterscotch smooth, with flavors of honey, cream, and pear nectar. It’s so nice, in fact, that my prized bottle of the stuff is almost empty.

Rum: Rum’s having a moment, at least in my liquor cabinet, with so many varieties with wildly different flavor profiles – which means you have to try them all. You definitely can’t go wrong with Mount Gay Extra Old ($50), which has an oaky bouquet and flavors of vanilla and cinnamon. Creeping upscale, there’s Ron Zacapa XO ($100), a delicious drink with hints of birch and ginger, and the mind-blowing Bacardi Reserva Limitada ($110), which is made from rums that have mellowed in charred American white oak casks. Limitada is as smooth as rum gets, with flavors of lemon and orange practically jumping out of the glass. Educate dad on rhum agricole, which is made with fresh sugar cane juice instead of the traditional molasses. I like 10 Cane ($30), with a pleasant vanilla flavor, and Clement Premiere Canne ($32), which boasts a pleasing sandalwood aroma and coconut and citrus flavors.

Vodka: It might be the un-booze, but vodka’s supposed absence of flavor might be the ultimate expression of peace in your old man’s soul. I just wrote about vodka, so I’ll only mention a couple of standouts. At $23, Ketel One punches way above its weight class. It’s as smooth as a whisper and perfect in a martini. 42 Below ($22) is another good bet, traveling all the way from New Zealand to the side table by Dad’s TV chair. It has hints of grain and straw and a great mouthfeel. Square One Organic ($35) is delicious and has a great story. It’s made in Idaho from American rye and has vanilla notes and a hint of spice. Grey Goose ($40) tastes as good as it looks, and you know how sexy those bottles are. And I was impressed with Stoli Elit ($60), the iconic Russian vodka house’s most refined offering. The bottle looks like something from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, and the liquid tastes like a Siberian winter, with the faintest hint of grain. Chill it, pour it, and let dad sip it.

Of course, the obvious benefit of these bottles is that Dad will be obliged to share them with you, at least for a drink, so be sure to pick something you like as well. You’re a good kid, did I ever tell you that?

A Sample of This Season’s Most Scholarly Scotch

There’s nothing like a well-aged Scotch whisky to chase winter’s chill from your bones. Fine single malts are our reward for toiling in the cold, and this season brings a fresh crop of old spirits that take the sting out of the deep freeze. Setting the standard is Highland Park 50, the oldest release from the most northerly distillery in Scotland. With a price tag of $17,500 per bottle, it’s a luxury only a fortunate few will taste, so here’s what you might be missing: an amazingly round, smoky, spicy whisky with hints of citrus and a flavor that lingers long on the palate and even longer in the mind. Whisky doesn’t get any better.

That said, for far less money you can savor several single malts that come quite close. At an affordable-by-comparison $1,000, the Macallan Sherry Oak 20 is an astonishingly well-balanced spirit with notes of fruit, spice, and oak, and each bottle comes with a portfolio of 10 prints by Scottish photographer Albert Watson, who was commissioned especially for the release. (The iconic Macallan 18, with a sophisticated mix of orange, chocolate, and spice, remains a perennial bargain at $150.) At 55.6% alcohol, the Glenlivet Founders Reserve 21 ($375) comes with an extra kick. The non-chill filtered whisky, released to celebrate a major expansion of the distillery, has traces of marmalade and toffee and a velvety mouthfeel. But for a third of the price, the Speyside distillery has an equally mature whisky that’s nine-tenths as good: the Glenlivet Archive 21 ($120), with an exquisite mélange of autumn spice, fruit, and vanilla. The gorgeous, golden Scapa 16 ($82), meanwhile, is designed to steel souls against the brutal North Sea winds that buffet the Orkney Islands with a playful mix of apple and honey.

The crisp Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix ($90) is a direct result of winter’s ferocity. In January 2010, an accumulation of heavy snow collapsed the roof of a remote part of the distillery warehouse, exposing Oloroso sherry and American oak casks containing whisky that Malt Master (yes, that’s actually a thing) Brian Kinsman used to create a brisk spirit of renewal. The result is a heavenly nectar of pear and honey. But perhaps the best bottle of them all, assuming you’d like to send your kids to college one day, is the Talisker 30 ($350). From the rocky shores of the Isle of Skye, it hits you right away with a refined sweetness, envelops you with notes of vanilla, sandalwood, and caramel, and imparts a warm peatiness that hints at its provenance without making you feel like you’re snorkeling in a bog. Even the air you exhale after taking a sip tastes delicious. Why can’t winter last all year?