It is nighttime in Ashcroft, Colo., a ghost town that died almost a century ago, when the silver mines were worked out. Now the only silver comes from the winter moonlight lancing off the snowfields—and the only movement is taking place just outside one of the old log cabins. There, a parka-wrapped crowd of about 50 men and women is stepping into crosscountry skis and snapping on headband-mounted miner’s lamps. Their guide gives them last-minute instructions, then leads them uphill and through the woods. It takes them about 45 minutes—skiing under the stars—to cover the 1½ miles to their goal, a spacious log cabin whose welcoming lights beckon them through the trees.
Once there, the skiers take off their skis, shed their parkas and miner’s lamps, catch their breath—and head for their tables. It is dinnertime at the Pine Creek Cookhouse, a restaurant where only the dedicated diner need make a reservation.
The Cookhouse, 12 miles outside of Aspen and 9,750 feet above sea level, is in a narrow Alpine valley in the Elk Mountains of the White River National Forest. In the winter it cannot be reached by wheeled vehicle. The other options are limited: There is a horse-drawn sleigh, and there are the human convoys of cross-country skiers.
The restaurant opens in early December and serves lunch and dinner daily until the end of ski season, usually around mid-April. (It reopens during summer, when it can be reached by car or bicycle.) At this time of year, the Cookhouse serves up to 55 guests at each meal. Some devotees make reservations as much as a year in advance, and even in the worst of winter weather there is seldom an empty seat at the evening sitting. When the going gets tough, the tough, it seems, get hungry. “People still ski here when there’s a blizzard raging out there,” says Kristina Mace, the Cookhouse’s manager and luncheon chef. “We don’t know the meaning of the words bad weather.” And those who go there for the $45 prix-fixe dinners (including crosscountry ski equipment) aren’t just ski bums looking for a hot meal. Sally Field and her husband, Alan Greisman, have made the trip. Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith were there over Christmas, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn have spent New Year’s Eve at the Cookhouse, and John Denver has celebrated two birthdays there.
Naturally, people hardy enough to make the trek to the Cookhouse aren’t going to be looking for nouvelle cuisine. And chef Ross Kamens, 25, isn’t interested in serving petite portions of pampered poisson. “People want something hearty and fresh after skiing up here,” he says. “The plates always come back to the kitchen empty.” Kamens offers his guests such specialties as loin lamb with rosemary pesto, grilled yellowfin tuna, Southwest roasted chicken, and venison with crushed walnuts in a brandy-and-Port sauce.
The Cookhouse hasn’t always been the Cookhouse. Nor has it always been out in the woods. Built in the 1930s, it was originally a trapshooting house in Aspen. After it was moved up into the hills in the ’60s, it served as a cabin in a boys’ summer camp. A conservationist who had bought up much of the land around Ashcroft opened the restaurant in 1971. Four years ago it was bought by John Wilcox, formerly a sports producer-director for ABC-TV. “I love the outdoors, I love the mountains, and I love to ski,” he says. “So buying this place was a dream come true.”
Inside the Cookhouse the guests have, finally, finished eating. Warmed by food and wine, they now face the winter night again. For those who have wined or dined too well, Wilcox has the horse-drawn sleigh ready. For the rest, there is the moonlight glide back to civilization—and, thankfully, it’s all downhill.
—Michael Neill, David Marlow in Ashcroft