Restaurant Critique: Tennessee Pass Cookhouse

Fall Line

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Leadville, Colo.

An evening at the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse goes like this: You rendezvous with your fellow diners at the Piney Creek Nordic Center at Ski Cooper (10 minutes from Leadville, 45 minutes from Vail), then set off on a gentle, mile-long hike through fragrant lodgepole pine forests. Before you know it, you’re ensconced, wine glass in hand, at a linen-topped table, with nothing but a panorama of 14,000-foot peaks in sight.

While you’ve been hiking, Don Stephens has been procuring produce, choice cuts of meat and other goodies from local purveyors. He’s chopped, seasoned, marinated and prepped it all in a commercial kitchen in Leadville, and then four-wheeled it up to his restaurant. A daunting task? Not for this Colorado-born chef, a veteran of the Aspen restaurant scene. “It’s euphoria up here,” he exclaims. “Everything we use is fresh stuff. It’s part of the lifestyle. It’s just what we have to do.”

What Stephens “has to do” is turn out high-style cuisine in one of the most spectacular settings in the Rockies. The Cookhouse is in a 30-foot yurt¿a circular tent of sorts, with canvas siding, wood floors, latticework walls and a center skylight that lets the stars shine through. Four years ago, Stephens and his partners filled the place with antiques¿tables, armoires, carpets, stoves¿and started serving dinner. “It was December 23,” Stephens recalls. “We served three people.” But the cuisine was extraordinary, and word got out. Last winter, they “had all 34 chairs full for 16 days straight” during the same holiday period.

This summer, Stephens, 36, will max out his 8-by-10-foot kitchen as well, preparing four courses (you have to select a main course when you book your reservation so it can be hauled up). The menu? Try wild boar sausage and baby greens followed by elk tenderloin with blueberry, sage and port sauce, and fresh-baked berry cobbler. The response? “People leave feeling like they had a real taste of Colorado,” Stephens says.