Corn, beans and squash - along with buffalo, turkey and quail - are a few of the heritage foods the new chef at Mesa Verde National Park is offering.
Since he took the reins at the Metate Room Restaurant this summer, Executive Chef Brian Puett is celebrating sustainable foods by creating new takes on old classics, such as shepherd's pie, chile rellenos - even ribeyes.
Puett incorporates locally grown ingredients such as Ute Mountain roasted corn in his bison shepherd's pie, poblano relleno and mesa greens salad.
Puett said he designed the menu around the Mesa Verde National Park property.
"All the game on the menu has historical and heritage connections," he said. "I sat down one night and got 90 percent of it done. I started tweaking it from there."
Whenever possible, Puett said he buys his meat from area producers, such as lamb from Fox Fire Farms in Ignacio.
This can be a challenge, he said, because the 140-seat dining room that usually turns over twice a night demands a high volume of product not all food purveyors can handle.
With a symbol on his menu, Puett identifies the "local, organic or sustainably produced ingredients," providing diners more information about entrées such as the quail and buffalo ribeye - both grilled and marinated.
Puett uses regional flavors such as chiles in many of his dishes. The quail is accompanied with a red chile polenta while the ribeye, topped with caramelized onions, mushrooms and cilantro butter, is served with green-chile mashed potatoes.
His cinnamon chile pork tenderloin comes with a chipotle cream, and the masa chicken asadero is finished with a smoked jalepeño cream sauce.
Even his shrimp appetizer is "chile-seared" and served with prickly pear red pepper jam.
"I've always liked spicy food as long as I can remember," he said, noting breakfast burritos are a favorite he makes at his home in Cortez.
He also makes the burritos at Mesa View Terrace food court, which includes four stations serving everything from build-to-order breakfasts to Navajo tacos for lunch.
Puett's obsession with cooking started at age 5, when he began watching the Louisiana legend and Cajun chef Justin Wilson on television.
"My mom said I wouldn't move when that show was on," he said.
A self-proclaimed Air Force brat, Puett lived in Louisiana, Virginia, Japan, New Jersey and south Texas by the time he was 13.
Fresh out of the Denver School of Culinary Arts, Puett joined National Parks & Destinations, a division of Aramark and concessionaire that runs resorts and restaurants in national parks throughout the United States.
He worked at Aramark's Lake Powell restaurant for six years, eventually rising to the ranks of executive sous chef before turning his sights on Mesa Verde.
He is one of 13 executive chefs working for the division.
Puett, who is 29, said he learned a lot about the history of the area and its foods from his former boss, Brandon Schubert, the former executive chef he apprenticed under at the Metate Room.
"Everybody has their own style," Puett said. "I gave the menu my own twist, built around how I like to cook."
The breads the kitchen staff bakes fresh daily mirror Southwest tastes - from the chipotle blue-corn pita to the cilantro-infused, black-bean hummus topping.
"When I'm cooking, I'm always looking around for something to play with," said the Puett. "It's trial and error."
Besides plans to peruse local farmers markets for quality ingredients to use in specials, Puett will conduct a series of sustainable workshops this summer at the Far View Lodge's Metate Room, situated at 8,250 feet.
The workshops are three years in the making, according to Judith Swain, director of sales and marketing for Aramark Parks & Destinations.
They will include overnight accommodations at Far View Lodge, chef demonstrations and wine tastings, which will pair regional, sustainable cuisine and Colorado wines.
The events will include a guided tour of Mesa Verde's ancient sites, cliff dwellings and early farming terraces.
"The whole thing about sustainable is it's not just about great food, it's about a sustainable experience," Swain said. "It's the experience you take away with you ... to engage and connect with that culture."
Reach Hope Nealson at email@example.com.