Gary Kucy, the subject of a story that ran in the Winter issue of Edible Idaho South, was recently named a semifinalist in the esteemed James Beard Awards. Congratulations to Gary! Here’s that story again:
The hinterlands surrounding resort communities like McCall and Sun Valley are teeming with wild game. Right? But it’s not like buckskin-clad mountain men with scruffy beards are knocking at the backdoors of local restaurants offering up recently harvested elk and deer. It doesn’t work that way. If you hear a shot in the woods during hunting season, that meat is probably going into someone’s personal freezer. Thanks to United States Department of Agriculture regulations, restaurants can’t legally serve wild game—only farm-raised, agency-inspected meat.
Still, chef Gary Kucy of Rupert’s restaurant in downtown McCall’s Hotel McCall works hard to find food close to home for his mountain-inspired, seasonal menus—just not from many buckskin-clad mountain men.
“Mainly, I use a fish purveyor in Boise to source my fish, a produce company to provide us with honey, beans, grains, regional produce, and with most specialty meats, I deal directly with the producers,” Kucy says about stocking his pantry and walk-in refrigerator.
Many folks who visit McCall this time of year desire hearty meat dishes, particularly wild game preparations that link the plate to the place.
“The mixed grill of elk is popular. I give them a smoked sausage and a loin medallion with huckleberry-onion jam. It’s nice comfort food,” Kucy explains.
Being able to get farm-raised elk, though, has suddenly become an issue for Kucy. That may be the result of its rise in popularity in recent years.
“It seems like everyone is serving an elk burger these days, not to mention elk steaks, and the producers are struggling to keep up with the orders,” Kucy says.
The supply and demand, for whatever reason, is definitely out of whack at the moment. One would think with a handful of commercial elk ranches in this neck of the woods that getting the stuff wouldn’t be a problem.
“A few years back, at the beginning of this economic downturn, many elk ranchers around here started to downsize their herds, and now, everybody wants to eat elk,” acknowledges Roy Sternes, owner of Black Canyon Elk Ranch near Emmett, who has sold to Kucy over the years.
“That’s the case with me. I’m in the process of rebuilding my herd, so I don’t have much product right now.”
Black Canyon specializes in pasture-raised Rocky Mountain elk as opposed to Roosevelt elk which tend to be larger. Sternes sells seasoned sausages, ground elk, and various steak cuts, that is of course, when there’s enough to go around. It may take a year or so for Sternes to restock his herd, to his previous norm of around 200 head, at which point, he looks forward to getting his products back to Kucy on a consistent basis.
“I enjoy raising elk, even though it’s not that profitable, but it’s even more fun building relationships with chefs like Gary [Kucy] who use it in creative ways,” Sternes says.
He’s probably talking about Kucy’s sumptuous venison sliders made with puffy brioche rolls and the juniper-marinated elk strip loin crowned with red onion marmalade.
The challenge of finding local food is hardly a new thing for Kucy. He came to Long Valley nearly a decade ago from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he cooked at the Snake River Grill. The Tetons of western Wyoming also proved to be a difficult place to source food products, yet Kucy believes that the local food system in Long Valley is not as strong as the one that exists in Jackson Hole. (Kucy should know; he has also worked at Tamarack Resort and Jug Mountain Ranch.)
“McCall ranks fairly similar to Jackson Hole in terms of remoteness. But in Jackson there were definitely more producers, like a guy who grows these great mushrooms in the back of a semi-trailer,” he says.
In Idaho, Kucy attempts to source as much local food as possible for his rotating menus, on which it’s common to find dishes such as buffalo short ribs braised in handcrafted porter made by McCall’s Salmon River Brewery. Dealing directly with producers with limited inventories, however, presents inherent problems—whether it’s elk, buffalo, lamb or beef.
“It’s tough sometimes to line up locally produced meat, especially when they only have two animals hanging at any given time,” Kucy points out.
This could be the scenario with any specialty meat producer, but he’s referring to Panther Ranch, a family-run cattle operation just down Highway 55 in Donnelly. Kucy is currently ironing out some details with the ranch, which produces naturally raised Angus beef.
“It’s all about developing certain cuts that I use in the restaurant, like sirloins and flat-iron steaks, and being able to get it when I need it,” he explains.
He sources his buffalo meat from North Wood Buffalo Ranch in nearby Lake Fork. He recently started using venison from Black Pine Deer Farm, which raises a European Fallow breed in McCall.
Procuring local meats isn’t Kucy’s only challenge, thanks to McCall’s mountain climate and relative short growing season. Most of the produce he gets comes from the lower agricultural valleys that skirt the West-Central Mountains, and that means building crucial relationships with small-scale farmers.
“Gary’s a great chef. He really takes the time to get it right,” says Katrina Pavlovich, owner of Nature’s Table Farm, who sells him organic produce grown in the Montour Valley near Sweet.
Kucy also scores fresh produce at the McCall Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays when it’s up and running.
“There’s a yoga teacher here who grows really nice potatoes, like fingerlings, Peruvian purples and Yukons, but getting a 50-pound box from her is usually not possible,” he says.
Finding huckleberries and morel mushrooms is a snap during summer—at least from a regulatory standpoint: There are no USDA restrictions on foraged food, and that means local foragers (or mountain men) with stained fingers can show up legally at any restaurant’s backdoor with freshly plucked, local offerings.
Kucy may be a mountain chef these days, but that wasn’t always the case.
“I was raised in Phoenix. I didn’t see any morels and chanterelles when I was younger there,” he exclaims.
He grew up cooking at his family’s pizzeria, way out in the sprawling burbs where white button mushrooms were the preferred fungus on pizza pies. It wasn’t until after high school, when he did a professional cooking apprenticeship at the prestigious Arizona Biltmore Resort, that he was introduced to the world of classic French cuisine. That experience helped him to land a sous chef position at Mark Miller’s renowned Coyote Café in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he spent the better part of the ‘90s studying the nuances of fine Southwestern cuisine.
“Mark [Miller] was big on flavor. But I quickly learned that this kind of food didn’t need to be spicy, there was more balance involved,” Kucy adds.
“There I was taught about the importance of using herbs and spices to accentuate food. Mark showed me that if I use fresh ingredients with bright flavors that I didn’t need to mask the food with lots of sauces.”
Kucy sources as much local food as possible for his rotating menus, on which it’s common to find dishes such as buffalo short ribs braised in handcrafted porter made by McCall’s Salmon River Brewery.
In other words, it was a real awakening for Kucy when he realized that not everything had to be drenched in béarnaise or floating in a lake of beurre blanc. Kucy now melds seemingly disparate culinary influences from around the globe. Good examples would be the flaky venison empanadas and the eggplant timbale with Bengali-spiked lentils (grown in the Palouse, no less) and the Thai-style crab cakes that show up on his menu from time to time.All this and more gets served in Rupert’s stylishly classic dining room, which boasts lots of antique mirrors, magnificent views of Payette Lake and the looming mountains. The comfy garden patio is a remarkable spot to dine during the warmer months. But it’s not just about flavors from other parts of the world at Rupert’s, as evidenced by his toothsome macaroni and cheese, made with white cheddar and dusted with herby breadcrumbs, a real stomach warmer after carving through powder all day.
Kucy and his wife, Stacey, pondered the idea of leaving the area after his job at Tamarack ended in 2008, but “we really like McCall, and we wanted to make it work here,” he says.
Having the Kucy’s around sure makes the town taste better. Stacey opened a gourmet bakery aptly named Stacey Cakes on Lake Street last year, and has been instrumental in the success of the farmers’ market over the years. Plus, nearly everyone in the Kucy household plays ice hockey at the Manchester Ice Centre, another reason for hanging around this mountain town.
“As long as I don’t break another leg playing hockey, everything should be fine,” he says about an injury that sidelined him a few years back.
Kucy is no doubt on the fast-track to becoming a McCall local, meaning he will soon have endured ten winters here without running off screaming into the ponderosa pines, naked and drunk. He now depends upon that view of Brundage Mountain, after the morning fog lifts over the lake, a few steps away from his kitchen where the large windows bathe the dining room with bright light—spotlighting his bright and bold cuisine.
Courtesy of Gary Kucy, Rupert’s
Makes 18 empanadas
2 pounds ground venison
¼ teaspoon juniper berries, toasted and ground
3 tablespoons canola oil
2 ounces red onion, sliced
2 ounces red bell pepper, cut into julienne strips
2 ounces yellow bell pepper, cut into julienne strips
3 tablespoons dates, chopped
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon allspice
A pinch of cayenne
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
¼ cup pumpkin seeds, toasted and chopped
½ cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped
¾ cup queso asadero (Mexican cheese)
Kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste
In a medium size bowl, combine ground venison and season with salt, black pepper and juniper. In a large, shallow-sided sauté pan, over medium heat, brown the meat. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon, leaving the drippings in the pan.
Raise the heat and quickly add the oil, onion and bell peppers, sautéing the mixture until it just begins to brown. Add dates, the remainder of the spices and brown sugar and mix until just combined. Deglaze the pan with sherry vinegar. Reduce the heat to low and add reserved venison back to the sauté pan, allowing the ground meat to absorb liquid by simmering it for about three minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat. Mix in the pumpkin seeds and chopped cilantro. After the mixture cools completely, fold in the cheese.
3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
¾ cup warm water
To make the empanadas:
In a large bowl, cut butter into the flour until it resembles a coarse meal. Dissolve the salt into warm water and add it to the flour mixture. Mix until the dough comes together; don’t overwork the dough or it will be become tough.
Divide the dough into 18 equal portions and set aside, covered, to rest for 30 minutes. Roll out each portion of the dough into four-inch rounds, and then place about three tablespoons of the picadillo filling in the center. At this point, brush the edges with a little water and fold in half, crimping edges with the tines of a fork. Once the pies are made, set them aside on a lightly floured baking sheet.
To cook the empanadas, preheat the canola oil in a large pot to 350° (clip-on frying thermometers work well) and fry the pies three at a time until golden brown, about three to four minutes per side. Remove the pies immediately and drain on paper towels. Keep the pies warm in a low-temperature oven until they are ready to be served.