Ski cuisine rises to new level |

Ski cuisine rises to new level

Robert John Frohlich, Special to the Tribune

It used to be axiomatic that to survive ski resort food a skier didn’t put anything in the stomach save chili or maybe packaged saltines.

Mountain cuisine was the gastronomic equivalent of the Girl Wear section at Wal-Mart – stale three years before they ever hit the shelves.

“In the past, food just wasn’t a priority at ski resorts,” muses Steve Turner. “Food was looked upon as an afterthought. There was little concern for quality, service – even ambience.”

When Turner, 37, arrived at Sierra-at-Tahoe four years ago he discovered one of the most limited food facilities in all the Sierra Nevada. Although the resort was heralded for its friendly, laid-back atmosphere; modest, cruiser slopes with spectacular views of emerald-hued Lake Tahoe, the Echo Summit area offered little in the way of dining or apres-ski activities.

“The cafeteria looked more like a gym than a restaurant,” Turner laughs. “There was a small variety of food choices: hamburgers, soup, chili. There was no bar and little employee enthusiasm. Luckily, we had a new general manager, John Rice, who is pro-food. He was very open to ideas.”

John Rice first met Turner in 1992 while he was directing operations at Southern California’s Bear Mountain. San Diego State grad Turner, who had first started working in restaurants while a college student, had recently moved to the ski area looking for a change of lifestyle.

“I’d owned three restaurants in Long Beach. They were health food-oriented and successful, but then I divorced and sold them,” admits Turner. “For years my dad owned a cabin at Bear Mountain and I’d grown up skiing. So I headed for the mountains.”

When Rice was promoted by Fibreboard, Bear Mountain’s owner, to take over the reins of sister resort Sierra-at-Tahoe, he invited Turner to come along.

“Steve came to me and asked for the opportunity,” remembers Rice. “I knew he was untested in the ski industry, but he was a proven restaurateur. After interviewing 10 people I knew Steve was who I wanted.”

Within a year after assuming duties as Sierra’s food and beverage manager, Turner began presiding over a gastronomic renaissance at the resort, turning around what had once been to some the West’s worst, into one of the best.

“I set realistic goals,” says the amiable, quiet-spoken Turner, “to increase quality and service. I wanted to raise the overall guest experience, yet keep in view bottom-line profit.”

Renovating the resort’s one cooking area into a functional kitchen, the resourceful chef created a commissary-type production base where food could be quickly sent to scatter areas throughout the lodge.

“I wanted to create a larger variety of items that were simple to prepare, but attractive and easy to purchase,” explains Turner. “Instead of one McDonald’s-type row of registers with lines of waiting patrons, I broke the room into different small restaurants, each with its own special menu.”

He also installed a bake shop. He developed a children’s menu and an overall low calorie menu, featured pure, clean tastes and simple combinations such as the “wrap;” flavored tortillas stuffed with either tri-tip, Thai chicken, or Cajun shrimp.

At a ski resort that had never attempted any apres-ski activity, Turner added a pub, featuring microbreweries and wines from the local foothills and which touted live music on the weekends.

“Steve had a huge challenge. He inherited limited facilities and a limited capital budget,” adds Rice. “But he succeeded through thrift and resourcefulness. He orchestrated a lot of late-night sessions with his employees, painting the rooms themselves and really warming up the lodge. He even tore down an old barn and used the wood to decorate one of the restaurants.”

“Steve puts in long hours. He leads from the front and isn’t afraid to take on any task he’d ask of others,” explains Pete Christophoro, purchaser for Sierra-at-Tahoe, who spends much of his time working alongside Turner. “Once, during a bordercross event, winds overnight knocked down the VIP tent he’d set up. The next morning it was quite a mess. The first guy picking up the pieces scattered all over and down below was Steve.”

Few supervisors receive such loyalty from their staff, but few supervisors display Turner’s loyalty to the people he hires.

“His office door is always open. He listens to peoples’ problems and on their level. He makes sure everyone is getting their fair share of on-hill snowplay,” mentions Christophoro. “Each year he puts aside part of his budget for an employee party, usually hosted at someone’s home. Steve supplies the food. The employees really appreciate it. Steve knows you can’t have success without a team.”

By the end of his fourth season at Sierra-at-Tahoe, Turner was presiding over seven food outlets including one on-mountain and three bars. His staff has grown to just under 200 employees. Many of his ideas, he admits, come from outside the ski industry such as when he visits ballparks, amusement parks, or the wine country. Others come from just being on the hill.

“I picked up snowboarding, much to the pleasure of some of the younger workers. It was some common ground and a sport I recommend to anyone,” says Turner, a lifelong skier. “It also gave me an idea for a restaurant I’ve named ‘The Cave.’ I designed it like a snowboard museum. It’s a 40-seat eatery and one of the more popular places at Sierra. It originally was the previous owners’ apartment.”

Although he measures much of his success by studying numbers, posting weekly graph lines and charts on the walls for his people to see (“The staff needs to know the score,” he says) to him, the greatest measurement of achievement remains winning the war with brown-baggers.

“We made dining with us easy, but moreover, we made it a bargain,” he says. “Value means what you pay for it. Instead of reducing portions and lowering costs, we provide good food and generous portions at a very reasonable price.”

In the midst of creating two new restaurants at the South Lake resort – which averages 500 inches of snow annually – one on the outdoor sundeck and the other atop 8,852-foot Huckleberry Mountain, Turner also caters weddings during the summer at the ski area. His ideas are so valued that Booth Creek president Tim Petrick (Booth Creek acquired Sierra-at-Tahoe in 1996) now flies him to other sister resorts such as Snowqualamie Pass to consult on restaurant projects. What was once just a six-month occupation has turned into a full-time metier.

“We were quoted last season by Snow Country as having the best food in the Sierra Nevada,” says Turner, who enjoys time off golfing and mountain biking. “I’m not sure if that’s completely true, but it’s very flattering and we do try hard to constantly improve. I really enjoy my work. Food is fun!”

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