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Chef at Great Canadian makes heli-ski experience a tasty one

Dan Bracko
Dan Bracko

At Great Canadian, chef Dan Bracko makes the experience about more than just heli-skiing.

After a day of exhilarating skiing, he serves up unforgettable meals.

Bracko learned his craft in schools in Vancouver and Calgary, but it was in the museums of Banff and Golden where he discovered the soul for the menus he now offers.

About seven years ago he broke a heel skiing and, needing something to fill his time while recovering, he began researching food history in the museums “to try to get an historical overview of what our ancestors in this area would have been eating over the last couple hundred years,” he said.

He spent an afternoon at the Whyte Museum in Banff reading the menus from many of the best restaurants in the area as well as quite a few individual cookbooks from private family collections.

“My favorite was a handwritten cookbook from 1886, written by Mary Schaffer, who was an explorer and artist through the Bow Valley corridor. I wasn’t allowed to take any camera or any photocopies, but I was allowed to write out anything I wanted … I left with about 15-20 single-spaced pages of handwritten notes of things I had found.”

What he found became the base for many of the recipes that now make up his summer and winter menus.

On this night we had an elk stew from one of those recipes, but with a modern twist.

“We tried the original recipe, but to be honest back then they didn’t have a lot of exciting ingredients so we put our own spin on it and took it more in the tradition of a French classic beef Burgundy with roasted mushrooms and wild boar bacon and pearl onions with the elk meat. Marinate the elk meat overnight in wine and garlic and then drain off the wine, dreg it in flour, brown the meat, add our roasted bacon, onions and mushrooms, cover it with a nice fresh beef stock and simmer it in the oven all day long.

“The secret behind it is we season it with maple syrup, which gives it a really deep note to it and adds a bit of sweetness, plus Dijon mustard and a bit of salt, so it’s really quite a simple dish but it’s one of the favorites of our guests.”

It was served with crispy fried potato cake, some baby bok choi, grilled carrots and cherry tomatoes. The presentation was as impressive as the taste, with vibrant, eye-catching colors.

Other favorites are free-range chicken that is prepped overnight in a brine that includes Bailey’s, peppercorn, rosemary and lemon, and smoked trout that is also brined overnight, then cold smoked and eventually served with black Russian caviar.

Heather Mountain Lodge is now open summers, where the focus is locally grown meat and poultry vegetables and herbs from the lodge’s own garden.

“In the wintertime we focus on hearty, robust, thick, chunky food, big flavors, great presentation and a spin that brings it back to the landscape we live in and to what our ancestors would have been eating around here,” said Bracko, who was given a lot of creative freedom to make a food program.

It’s a seven-day revolving menu in the winter: most nights a three-course dinner, one night a five-course wine-pairing and one night a carving buffet. In the summer it’s more picnic style, with roasted chickens and various smoked meats each day, vegetables and herbs from their garden and daily fresh eggs from their chickens.

While a salary is one of life’s essentials, for Bracko the real payoff is in the faces of his clients. Good food, he said, is so much about love. And the love he puts into each and every meal comes back to him in the waves of smiles and laughter of his customers.

“I like to say this is where flavor turns to emotion so don’t be afraid to cry,” he said while taking a brief break in the loft above the lodge’s dining room. “It’s true. When you serve this food you really connect with somebody on another level. Flavor really does create emotion and creates this feeling in the room of contentment and camaraderie. If you go down there and look at all the happy, smiling faces and see what a great time everyone is having, it shines loud and clear the importance of it.”