As a professional chef who lost my left hand at 30 years old, one of the most immediate things I realized was that I simply couldn’t tackle recovery alone. I needed community to recover fully. There’s a lot of education and real, deep healing that happens through learning about your disability with peers, with structured support and guidance. All held in a space where there is celebration. Celebration of ability, of how we look, how we feel, and how we are different. I found that space two and a half years after my amputation, in the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
Since then, I’ve been a passionate advocate, spokesperson, athlete, fundraiser, and living proof of concept in my everyday work and life. As they say at CAF, an active life in sports has the power to change someone’s life for the better. And I am a living example of that truth.
So when the Idaho Outdoor Fieldhouse reached out to share that they were building a state-of-the-art facility on a seven-acre campus right on the river in the heart of Boise that would become the headquarters for Mission 43 and the Challenged Athletes Foundation, and they invited me to be the guest Chef to curate and cook the evening’s dinner following the ribbon cutting ceremony, there was only one answer - a resounding yes.
That brings us here, where at the confluence of work and healing that I am passionate about, I’m taking the opportunity to invite you on a journey with me into the kitchen, into my mind, into my work, and what it’s like when, as a challenged athlete myself, I’m asked to create a menu that celebrates the opening of a new facility that champions ability. A place built to help other people like myself and those who’ve yet to come to that point in their stories where a traumatic injury changes how they think, feel, and see themselves. Being asked to chef an event that opens up a new space in the Rocky Mountain West for this type of growth and healing? What a tremendous opportunity.
And with that, let’s dig in.
I find great joy, satisfaction, and pride in cooking a meal for anyone, and it begins with menu design. Whether you’re a friend having breakfast in my kitchen or there are a few hundred of us having dinner at a celebratory event, I build my menus with sincere thought and interest in who you are and what you need. It’s in that space that a menu comes to life. In that moment Chef and diner connect. We get to go on a journey together, and it starts with a blank page and some creative questions.
Where are we? What is in season? What is crafted, curated, or stored locally? And who are the clients? What are their needs? What is this event for, what is its purpose? Is it celebratory, somber, reflective? Is it all of the above? The answers to these questions become ingredients in the recipe. We are collectively crafting an ambient space for tangible, organic growth and community. It’s a space where inspiration takes the reins, and then, in that moment, a menu is born.
The Idaho Outdoor Fieldhouse has a very active, connected outdoor community. And so we knew we wanted to create a menu inspired by my specific experience as a chef and athlete in the outdoors, as a hunter and forager and fisherman, but also a menu that celebrates this place that is Boise, Idaho, nestled in the Rocky Mountain West. And we knew we wanted the menu to feel celebratory, to foster a sense of connection with not only place but also the people gathered within.
We began the evening with passed appetizers and cocktail bites.
Bar snacks: Maple Chile Pecans
Idaho is connected to some of the great tributaries of the West, with navigable rivers that flow to the Pacific, where steelhead salmon migrate to the far reaches of the ocean and back every year. It’s a fact I’m reminded of when I think about the energy in a room full of people mingling, coming to and fro, filtering in fresh from an exhilarating opening walk through this new campus right on the river. A nod to the water felt fitting.
I thought it would be nice to do an elevated caviar service on a tortilla. We start with a fresh ground corn tortilla - handmade, pressed, and then crisped on site. To that, we add a cured Idaho trout roe and a creme fraiche made with lemony dried sumac. It’s a classic seafood pairing: a crispy bite, salty trout, creamy, unctuous roe, and a slightly tart finish.
We had to. Maybe it’s cliche, but it’s necessary - potatoes. And as a nod to my Jewish ancestry: Latkes. Because this is Idaho, but also, who doesn’t love a crispy potato? We’ve paired lacy delights with an elk and Swedish potato bratwurst and a chipotle applesauce. Potato harvest, apples falling off the trees, a nod to hunting season, and the warmth of chipotle chili in your chest: It’s a celebration of fall in Idaho.
Lastly, I wanted to meet the folks in the room who maybe don’t eat meat or fish with something a bit more neutral: a flight of empanadas. An empanada is a corn masa turnover stuffed and fried to golden perfection. We’re stuffing ours with braised greens, others with greens and cheese. Topped with a little *shameless plug* sweet and spicy Montana Mex Habanero Sauce (or as we call it in our family, “everything sauce”). A nod to my Latino roots seemed like a welcome bite to round out our appetizers before we sit for dinner.
As a chef, I’m often of the mind that when you sit at a table, it’s a treat if that table already has a little bite of something for you to enjoy. So, in addition to the flowers and decorations that adorn the tabletops, platters of focaccia, whipped chevre, crispy mushrooms, and a plum chutney greet diners as they take their seats. On such an inspirational evening, I hope a shared plate will help folks ease into inspired conversation, maybe with someone new seated next to them.
By design, dinner typically begins with a salad. As we journey into the cold season, hearty, toothy, slightly bitter greens like radicchio bring a lot of flavor to what we’ll call a fall salad. I wanted to again feature trout as a prominent Idaho seafood staple, but in this case, we’ve whipped it into a mousse that serves as part of the dressing and brings a creaminess to a crunchy bite. Piles of fresh herbs like mint, dill, parsley, and fennel bring even more flavor to a hearty salad, and we finish it off with a delightful, bright lemon-herb vinaigrette compliments of April Hale, executive chef extraordinaire at Open Table Boise.
There’s just something to sitting at a table with a group of people all feeding from the same platter that just makes us feel like we’re home. And that’s how I wanted folks to feel around these tables - I wanted this to feel like a place where we’re building community, where we’re all family. The menu itself is homey. So, to that end, I chose a family-style service for all of the main courses.
It’s deceivingly simple. Coal-roasted beets, seemingly perfect in their own earthy, smokey flavor. Then elevated. Paired beautifully with fresh mint and bright flavors of raw garlic and basil in a pistachio pesto and smokey, slightly spicy dry chile salsa known as salsa matcha.
I wanted to lean into that smokey smell of our neighborhoods in the fall, into the welcoming aromas and flavors that come from foods cooked over a bed of coals. Our side vegetable is broccolini, grilled just to the point where the edges begin to blacken, topped with crushed hazelnuts, flakey sea salt, and fresh lemon zest. To me, this is a classic dish that sings in the fall, especially paired with our main dish.
Beef may be king, but it was sheep that shaped the West. Still today, flocks dot the landscape here. Grazing high mountain meadows through the summer months until they descend into the lowlands to weather the winter snows, where in the spring, their wooly fleeces will be sheared, cleaned, pulled, and woven into the very fabrics that clothe us through those same harsh winter days.
On this November evening, we are warmed from the inside by slow-braised Idaho lamb shanks in a rich tomato gravy. Served over a pillow of stone-ground corn grits and topped with preserved lemon rind.
A Chef’s note on ingredients: When designing menus, I often find myself pulling from my own pantry, which is always fully stocked with Montana Mex products, seasonings, and sauces. In this recipe for braised lamb shanks, I use Montana Mex Ketchup as a substitute for tomato paste, and I encourage you to try this swap at home. Loaded with spices, herbs, and seasonings, it becomes a tremendously flavorful building block to any tomato-based dish.
Dessert and a sweet finish. Pumpkin Tamal with toasted cinnamon whipped cream highlights my enthusiasm and love affair with my Mexican roots. If you’ve had tamales, a savory interpretation is probably more familiar. I find many are not familiar with sweet versions of this Mexican staple food, so the idea of introducing this spin on a classic really appealed to me. Sweet tamales can be filled with fruits, nuts, spices, chocolate, and on and on. I love pumpkin pie, so I worked off of that inspiration and filled the tamal with a puree of pumpkin dotted with Chai spiced golden raisins, steamed, and then griddled in browned butter. A dollop of toasted cinnamon whipped cream brings the dessert home.
Last but definitely not least. Diners were treated to an assortment of orange-infused chocolate truffles studded with toasted grains, coconut, and dried edible flowers from my garden as we rounded out our exceptional evening together.
The impassable reality is that recovering from a traumatic injury requires a lot of moxie and grit. From yourself and also from your supportive circle. The many people, teams, and organizations like the Challenged Athletes Foundation who helped me find my way deserve sincere credit and thanks. I admit that sometimes, being the recipient of so much “help and support” in reality can feel quite daunting. “How can I give back?” “How can I help others?” “Am I saying thank you enough and to the right people?” These are common thought loops that I hear and feel in my day to day.
And so it is with deep gratitude and action that I am so proud and full of joy in my ability to be still able to cook. Even sweeter than dessert is when I get to do so for the community that helped save my spirit and, thus, my life. Sweeter still was being able to do all of the above cooking for a substantial community celebration.
Congratulations to Mission 43, the Challenged Athletes Foundation, and the Idaho Outdoor Fieldhouse teams on the beautiful new home base. Thank you for trusting me to curate and cook a meal for you on this momentous occasion, and to the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation for hosting me and my Montana Mex team here in beautiful Boise, Idaho. Being your chef for the ribbon-cutting ceremony was a highlight of my career and a launching point for me and my work with Montana Mex as we double down on our mission to continue supporting our communities and partners in purposeful work and investment into the people who make the world a better place.
With love and light.