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Culinary Experiences and Chef Events in Yosemite National Park & Beyond

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View from the AhwahneeFor someone who loathes sleeping in a tent and loses interest after 20 minutes of hiking, a visit to a national park only has limited appeal. Sarika Chawla investigates intriguing winter activities for those non-athletic types. 

Color me surprised when I discovered I’ve been trying to unleash my inner wilderness explorer at the wrong time of year.

Forget about high summer when trails are overflowing with backpackers and dogged rock climbers. Nope, the best time of year for us non-outdoorsy types to visit an outdoorsy destination is winter.

When it’s 25 degrees and snowy, no one casts aspersions on those who prefer to drink wine by the fireplace over hiking/biking/fishing/cliff scaling.

Winter in Yosemite National Park Frosty trees and snow-capped mountains photograph well, making it easy to impress others with your nature-loving self.

But in winter, park amenities are often limited—both in terms of accommodations and concessions—which mean parks have to rely on other methods to entice off-season travelers.

Enter food. The great equalizer, food is an appealing incentive for almost any traveler. After all, everyone has to eat, right?

The leader of the pack is Yosemite National Park, where culinary programming runs almost consistently between November and early February—traditionally the park’s slowest time of year.

Get more tips in our National Parks Travel category.

Hiking trailBeginning with Vintners’ Holidays, followed by the Bracebridge Dinner, and Chefs’ Holidays, food and wine events take center stage at The Ahwahnee national park lodge.

Sure, there are outdoor activities available, namely guided snowshoeing and hiking, ice skating, and skiing; but in deep winter, the park takes on a quiet sort of desolation that makes spending time indoors all the more appealing (and acceptable).

Vintner’s Holiday offers eight sessions with tastings and seminars with acclaimed California wineries, culminating with a five-course dinner in which the food is paired to the wine (not the other way around).

The Bracebridge Dinner is The Ahwahnee’s oldest culinary tradition, dating back more than 80 years and blending dinner and pageantry… just don’t call it dinner theater.

More fun ideas in Winter Fun in California: Yosemite Winter Activities Guide

The season wraps up with Chefs’ Holidays, now celebrating its 25th year, where each session spotlights chefs with demonstrations and tastings, and ends with a five-course dinner, each course prepared by a different chef.

Chefs Holidays at the AhwahneeUnlike trendier culinary events such as South Beach Food & Wine and the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, which are packed with alcohol-sponsored after-parties and celebrity panels, Chefs’ Holidays is far from a youthful event. Its relatively high price tag (from $694 to $1,307 per couple for two to three nights) attracts boomers and retirees; events tend to be passive, with old-school cooking demonstrations followed by crowds being shepherded toward tastings.

Meanwhile, The Ahwahnee—considered one of the grand dames of national park lodges—is an 83-year-old fading beauty whose long-needed refurbishment is stymied by restrictions that come with being both a federal and historic property.

Yosemite-bound? Try Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Yosemite National Park

Apart from tastings and the gala dinner, guests are left to their own devices for meals, and inside the park, those options are limited. Once you’ve sampled pricey bites at The Ahwahnee and the nearby Mountain Room (only open for dinner), the only remaining options are cafeteria-style dishes or convenience-store offerings, making it a less-than-ideal dining destination.

David Kinsch kitchen tour peace signBut what the event does offer is an unintimidating, approachable way for curious food-lovers to mix and mingle with upper-echelon chefs. Top Chef alums are generally on the roster, as are notable names in California’s culinary scene, such as David Kinsch of Manresa in Los Gatos, and Douglas Keane of Healdsburg’s legendary Cyrus. No pretention, no attitude.

A behind-the-scenes tour of The Ahwahnee’s massive kitchen (they estimate 6,500 square feet) shows just how much goes into preparing a meal for 150 gala guests: hotel Executive Chef Percy Whatley’s crudo dish required 40 pounds of yellowtail; a total of 10 pounds of duck fat went into Chef Kinsch’s deceptively light squab dish. On a daily basis, the kitchen produces a 400 loaves of bread and 25 dozen cookies.

Squab DishAt Chefs’ Holidays, if the chefs are the stars, the environment wins best supporting actor. Scheduled events are evenly dispersed over two or three days, meaning there is plenty of time to take advantage of the park’s ample trail system and stunning waterfalls. Yosemite has more than 800 miles of trails catering to the laziest of strollers (guess who tackled the 1.5 miles to Mirror Lake?) to the most hardcore hikers set on scaling the demanding Half Dome.

Only a few other lodges in national parks seem to be following Yosemite’s lead: In Washington’s Olympic National Park, the historic Lake Quinault Lodge hosts culinary weekends in late January, March and May. The weekend event includes a meet and greet with the lodge’s executive chef, an hour-long workshop featuring Washington wineries, and a four-course, Pacific Northwest-inspired dinner. Upcoming vineyard spotlights include Cadaretta Winery and Clayhouse Vineyards, January 29-31; Cougar Crest Winery, March 19-21l; and Maryhill Winery, May 21-23.

Shenandoah National Park’s Skyland Resort offers culinary programming throughout the year, mostly in one-night stints that include accommodations and a four-course meal paired with Virginia wines, plus a keepsake cookbook. Additionally, every Thursday at Skyland Resort or Big Meadows Lodge is a $10 tasting from featured Virginia wineries.

Get more fun food ideas with our Culinary Travel section.

Is this the future of culinary-travel-meets-outdoor-adventures? Probably not. Serious foodies generally want more immersive, hands-on activities, and these packages don’t offer much more than short getaways with the price of dinner bundled into the room rate.

But if a good meal and some schmoozing with the chefs is your excuse to get into a national park, consider it worthwhile. Call it “national park light,” and enjoy the uncrowded park, drinks by the fire, and an opportunity to bring home some culinary education.

By Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com.

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