Family Dinners in Donner Pass

I nervously mixed the quinoa with the binder and seasonings, scared to death that I’d forgotten something, or dropped an eggshell in the mix, or used sugar instead of salt. With one eye to the clock, I meticulously formed the patties and dropped them onto the largest sheet pan I’ve ever used. We had 50 high school students and their chaperons to feed promptly at 6:00pm.  A lot of everything needed to be ready at once and although we serve it “family style”, this isn’t family. These are people who had paid for a meal and expected it to be professional. I was in charge of the vegetarian option. If I screwed this up, seven or eight kids and at least two adults wouldn’t get dinner. That’s huge pressure. I didn’t know these kids. I couldn’t just pop open a can of black beans and dump them on some rice. This was a commercial kitchen. There was a Chef in a black coat. Big ovens. Huge sinks. Stuff hanging so high I had to stand on a crate to reach them. THIS was way over my head (literally and figuratively!)

I’d arrived at Clair Tappaan Lodge a few days earlier expecting to put in a few hours of manual labor in return for a discount on room and board for a week. The charming and rustic 90-year old lodge is owned by the Sierra Club and operates as a non-profit lodge with hostel-style bunk room accommodations, gear loaning, professionally prepared meals and tons of other amenities. Such volunteer-for-stay arrangements are part of the rich history of the lodge.

I got settled in and looked over the list of tasks Kevin, the manager, had given me to keep me busy and help me keep my end of the “work” bargain. None of them were very exciting, but I didn’t care – I was getting a great place to stay and awesome food. A little dirt under my nails and purging board games wouldn’t kill me. However, due to a unique set of circumstances, it soon became apparent that I would be very useful in the kitchen – even just helping with non-food related tasks like dishes and set up, etc.  (Here’s where you learn a little secret about me) I was thrilled with this! I have spent countless hours of my life watching every cooking show on television from Julia Childs to Yan Can Cook in my youth to Hell’s Kitchen and Top Chef and everything in between. The energy, the excitement, the creativity, the food!  Now, let’s be clear – I’m not a chef. I’m barely a good cook. I don’t even have a kitchen of my own. My current pantry consists of a tub of basic staples in the trunk of my car. But whenever I get a chance to use the kitchen at a host’s home, I’m in it. And now, this! It’s goofy, I know! I was tickled pink to be IN this professional kitchen – even if I was just washing dishes.

But tonight. Tonight was awesome. It was just me and the Chef for dinner service tonight. In addition to salads and deserts, which I’d mastered over the weekend, he asked me to prepare the vegetarian option. I’m very proud to say that I didn’t drop any eggshells into the mix, nothing burned, everything was done on time and not only did several of the guests comment on my contribution, the Chef and Kevin both loved my creation. Raved over it even! I’d gotten to know these two well enough over a few days that I don’t think they were just being kind, and besides, I saw them sneaking seconds!

I’m quite certain you won’t be seeing me on “Next Best Chef” or anything like that, but if I had a bucket list, cooking in a professional kitchen would have been on it – and I can now say I’ve done it. And that I’ve been invited back to do it anytime!

Did I mention I hiked this morning, too?

And yes – there are no photos. Things move WAY too fast to be snapping pics! And my apologies for the title. Nothing else seemed fitting. 


4 thoughts on “Family Dinners in Donner Pass

    1. LOL, I have been on the road since April and refuse to be at the mercy of road-trip food and truck stop specials – so I have some basic vegetarian friendly staples in my “mobile pantry” for those occasions when I can crank up the camp stove or have access to a hotplate – or even a full kitchen. My favorite spices, chef’s knife and a garlic press are among the collection!


  1. It has been an adventure! And no, no real impetus or end-date. It’s how I live. Empty Nester, always on the go…never still. Always wandering, or at least planning the next adventure. Love your blog, btw!


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