I went to college in Connecticut, and I’ve skied all my life, but I’m chagrined to admit I never heard of Powder Ridge until I started watching Hell’s Kitchen.
Yes, that Hell’s Kitchen: the TV cooking show where Gordon Ramsay terrorizes, humiliates, and outrages the chefs under him as they try to outlast one another and win a job at a famous, world-class restaurant.
Powder Ridge’s Kevin Cottle is Hell’s Kitchen royalty: runner-up in season 6, recipient of a coveted Black Jacket, (the highest badge of honor the show offers bar winning), and star on a Returning Veterans team during season 18. Tempered in the crucible of Gordon Ramsay’s fiery demands for absolute perfection, Kevin is now food and beverage director for and an investor in Powder Ridge Mountain Park and Resort in central Connecticut.
Powder Ridge looks to be a great snapshot of life in the age of Coronavirus for a smaller operator and – happily – they are thriving, not just surviving. They are touting state-of-the-art, Covid-streamlined services for everything this season, soup-to-nuts. They want the mountain experience to not miss a beat, just have some different things for you to enjoy. Best of all, finally someone uber-talented is bringing first-rate food to the skiers on the mountain.
It seems Powder Ridge is showing that the little mom-and-pop places might be better suited to adjust more quickly and creatively in a Coronavirus landscape than their much larger counterparts. And any time a mom-and-pop place does well, the whole winter sports world wins.
JF: Kevin, tell us a little about your career arc?
KC: I went to the Culinary Institute of America and graduated in 1991.
JF: The CIA!
KC: The CIA! Yes! And after I graduated, I joined the navy. I was on an aircraft carrier, the John F. Kennedy. How about that? A kid from Massachusetts on the JFK!
JF: Did you cook in the navy?
KC: No, I knew I was going to cook for the rest of my life, so I wanted to do something different.
JF: When was the moment you knew you wanted to cook for the rest of your life?
KC: I was a little boy. My mom as a fantastic cook, and I loved cooking too. So growing up I just worked in restaurants my teenage years all through high school, and I studied culinary arts in high school for a certificate for vocational tech.
JF: Tell us about Powder Ridge – its history, its trails, what else it has besides skiing, and how you got involved?
KC: Powder Ridge was opened in the 1950s by the Zemals family. They had a great vision: a small, family-oriented place that was also a year-round facility. In Powder Ridge’s case, it was swimming. Swim clubs were all the rage in the ‘60s and ‘70s and we had an Olympic- sized pool, so families had a reason to come here year-round from the get-go.
In the ‘90s some time they sold it, and things didn’t go so well for the new owners. There were ups and downs that got worse over time, and in 2006 it shut down for what looked to be for good, and the bank took it over. It sat dormant for six years, and Mother Nature came in, got a foot hold, and turned it into a disaster area. But our CEO and managing partner Sean Hayes and his company saw an opportunity to bring it back. So they bought it in September of 2012 from the town of Middlefield, who had purchased it previously from the bank.
JF: What are the iconic runs?
KC: Middlefield and 747. They are the longest and widest trails in the state of Connecticut.
JF: Tell us about what guests should expect at the resort this season, both on and off mountain.
KC: So for our 2020 ski season we are committed to providing as full an experience as possible while also being ultra-safe. We have the luxury of having 20,000 square feet of indoor space in our main lodge, and we redesigned our entire property to spread everything out to adhere to and promote social distancing. We have a heated outdoor tent that’s 2,000 square feet. We attached an outdoor beer garden with a wood-fired pizza and smoked grill. It’s a huge hit. There’s a giant fire pit in the middle of this area, and we created heated outdoor spaces all around the property that people can enjoy in small groups.
JF: What about ticketing?
KC: Everything is on-line ticketing now or contact-less purchasing. So is food. You can use your phone to order it from the lodge, and you get a text when its ready, and then you come pick it up.
JF: What advice do you have for operators of smaller mountains now, and do you think they actually may have an advantage over mega-resorts and mega-passes?
KC: I think in today’s climate these little mountains and small areas have a huge advantage. They’re smaller, so there’s not a massive amount of people to deal with. Next our property is vast – 225 acres. Ski areas have plenty of room for social distancing. Sure, we’ve had our trials and tribulations, but half the fun of doing this is figuring out how to beat this thing: to succeed in spite of it. They say “you can’t do this,” but then we figure it out and show them we can. We get to see and enjoy the fruits of our labor. And that encourages us to keep trying even more. It also gives everyone else hope.
JF: Give me a concrete example.
KC: Live concerts.
JF: How are you doing live concerts?
KC: Our grounds have a massive flatland at our base. We have beautiful backdrop of the mountain, and this area forms a massive natural amphitheatre. We were the first location in the entire state to hold a concert during Covid. It was at the end of summer, this July, and it was the 50TH anniversary of “The Concert That Never Happened.”
JF: “The Concert That Never Happened?” You say that like it’s a proper noun and needs to be in capitals…
KC: You’re right, and it does, the capitals I mean. Back in 1970 Powder Ridge planned a concert that was going to be the “next Woodstock,” a 3-day festival with Janis Joplin, Allman Brothers, Joe Cocker…
(SHOWS PLAYBILL TO JAY)
JF: Wow! Mountain…Ten Years After…Cactus…Jethro Tull…
KC: James Taylor, Van Mo, they were all coming.
JF: It looks fantastic…like another Woodstock…
KC: Yes. That was the idea. But it was canceled a week before the event went off, because the town didn’t want the community overrun.
JF: Ahh…The Concert That Never Happened…
KC: Exactly. Trouble is the hippies had already rolled in. The Concert That Never Happened never happened, but the hippies happened and they took over the town for days.
JF: Sounds like one of my favorite hippie jokes. How do you know your hippie friends came to stay at your house?
JF: They’re still there…
KC: Well that’s what happened. The hippies came and didn’t leave. They had to call out the National Guard.
JF: (horrified) Did they bust heads?
KC: They made sure they left.
So this year was the 50th anniversary of The Concert That Never Happened, so we planned a 3-day mega-festival to celebrate The Concert That Never Happened by having a Concert That Would Happen, but then Covid came and appeared to cancel the whole thing.
JF: So wait! You had two Concerts That Never Happened?
KC: Not quite; only for a little while. Now as I mentioned before, our venue is perfect for social distancing. It’s a ski area, and our base area is flat and has massive acreage. So working closely under the CDC guidelines and with the support of the state, we showed them a plan to do a one-day, all-day event, and they allowed us to have 400 people come. So we capped it at that, spaced everybody out, and pulled it off without a hitch of any kind. We had massive media coverage celebrating that we did it. And we’ve had four since.
JF: So the Concert That Never Happened happened?
KC: Yes, the second one, not the first…
JF: Right….the second Concert That Never Happened happened and celebrated the Concert That Still Never Happened…
KC: Something like that…
JF: That either sounds like a t-shirt or an Abbott and Costello skit. “What’s the concert that never happened?” “What’s the concert that did happen?” “I’m not askin’ about the concert that did happen…”
BOTH: THIRD BASE!
KC: Oh yeah, we made a T-shirt…
JF: What restrictions are there on dining right now, and how has your restaurant, Fire at the Ridge, been affected, if at all.
KC: Well every restaurant has been affected. But Connecticut has proved we can open restaurants responsibly and carefully. Connecticut just went to Phase 3 on October 8, which is 75% operability indoors. We can fit 100 people indoors and 250 outdoors, including weddings.
JF: Do you find people are coming out? In what kind of numbers?
KC: We have three weddings going on right this minute. They are still apprehensive about eating indoors, so even thought he state allows us to have 75% capacity, because of our luxury of lots of space, we have maintained our capacity to be under 50% inside. We want to make the community feel more comfortable easting indoors, so we decided to cap it at 50% for the entire winter.
JF: So people need to make reservations.
JF: How good a skier are you?
KC: I’m a fantastic snowboarder. I’m a reformed skier.
JF: (horrified again) WHAT??!! WHY??!!
KC: Because I put a snowboard on my feet, and never looked back.
JF: (bitterly) What does a snowboard have that skis don’t have?
KC: I find more sensation in one edge. I can almost touch my face to the ground while making turns, and I find that exhilarating.
[Author’s Note: Okay…I can understand that…]
JF: Name three of your favorite resorts in the USA.
KC: Of the ones I’ve been to? Vail. I lived there from ‘97-2000. I was there for the world championships in ’99. Loon Mountain in New Hampshire – I lived in the White Mountains for a while when I was food and beverage director and executive chef at the Mountain View Grand Resort and Spa. And then of course Powder Ridge Mountain Park and Resort.
For places I want to go see? Park City, Lake Tahoe, and Jackson Hole.
JF: How about worldwide?
KC: Of course the Swiss Alps. I’d like to travel all through Europe actually. I have friends that have hotels in Bulgaria, Germany, and France.
JF: Next big trip?
KC: Loon with the kids this year.
JF: In what way does Gordon Ramsay influence your cooking?
KC: Standards. Make sure you never – NEVER – waiver on your standards. He repeated that endlessly, and I still hear it to this day. His voice echoes in my damn head, but it’s good, because that’s the single most important thing to keep in mind.
JF: Are there any other celeb chefs you try to emulate?
KC: Marcus Samuellson
JF: I’ve been to Aquavit. The Swedish restaurant he had in Manhattan.
KC: He’s Ethiopian raised in Sweden, he turned me on spices and more spices, and he has just a different way of cooking.
JF: Tell us more about that…
KC: He decided to go with his Ethiopian heritage, so he had an African influence with technique that’s French and American. And now he’s doing Red Rooster in Harlem with delicious fried chicken and collared greens. He’s so well-rounded, and he blends all those ethnicities and he just makes it work.
JF: If you could describe your cooking style, what would it be?
KC: I’m a modern American style heavily influenced with fish and New England characteristic dishes.
JF: When you feel like branching out or experimenting, what ethnicities will you try?
KC: I gamble with flavors – not so much ethnicities. I don’t lean towards anything in particular. I pick a flavor in my head, and then a flavor profile. For example, if I go to a restaurant and taste a certain ingredient in the sauce, I’ll try to emulate that in my own way.
JF: Give us an example.
KC: I tasted one sauce recently that had a slight smoky flavor with tarragon and light tomato broth. This was a fish dish, and with those three flavors in mind, I adapted them into something completely different, but in my own style; I made a pasta dish with homemade linguine and clams. We serve it at Fire at the Ridge, and the customers love it.
JF: Recently a veteran writer colleague of mine said his lunch every day on the mountain was oatmeal, nuts, and berries. Am I right in thinking that Gordon Ramsay’s reaction to that might be something along the lines of “If I was a rabbit, I’d be wetting myself?”
KC: Yes, or much worse than that. By the way, eating lunch in the parking lot is absolutely absurd. We work hard at Powder Ridge to give you as full a mountain experience at all times, not just during Covid. But especially now we are committed to keeping the experience as full as possible. From parking lot to rentals to food and drink everything – EVERYTHING – is socially distanced and Covid-compliant.
We took the last six months and used it to our advantage. Six months of planning went into redesigning the entire property to adhere to today’s covid restrictions, but nevertheless we refuse to succumb to a “new normal.” For a little while we have a slightly altered normal, but you will have a full mountain experience. You’re not eating in your car!
JF: You’re packing lunch for you and your buddy to eat in the parking lot. Give us a few ideas for what to bring.
KC: I’d buy at the mountain. Here’s what we did in our restaurants: We decorated them with trees and plants and added couches and an internet style café – a barrista bar. There’s electric lounge chairs, and while the kids are outside, the parents can safely sit and work instead of eating at a bare table or eating nuts and berries in your car.
JF: What’s the optimum lunch for skier/boarder?
KC: For us Fire at the Ridge I’m known for my clam chowder. Also our Ridgeside Burger is a huge seller. Those won’t change…wonderful lunches on a cold day: applewood bacon, local cheddar, my special garlic aioli on a brioche bun and hand cut fries with black pepper parmesan truffle cheese.
JF: I dunno about a burger at halftime when I’m going to be tackling monster moguls on double black diamonds right after…won’t that make you loagie?
KC: Our menu is designed to give you carbs. You need the things in a burger. But for those that don’t want that, we have tuna nachos – fresh tuna, cucumber, sweet chili sauce, lime, micro cilantro and sriracha aioli. That’s our best selling appetizer outside of our wings.
JF: I will say, the tuna sounds good. That’s what I bring. Fresh tuna on an onion roll with bacon, black olive tapenade, and hot Italian peppers, lettuce and any dressing you want. It’s a pan bagnat…a traditional skier’s lunch.
KC: That sounds European.
JF: It is. It’s French.
KC: Well we’re not in France! We’re in America!
JF: Have you ever re-made that dish from Hell’s Kitchen where you paired haddock with figs and ended up winning a trip to Las Vegas?
KC: No, but now that you mention it, I might have to bring it back this winter.
TOP SUGGESTIONS FOR NAMES FOR THAT CONCERT KEVIN’S TALKING ABOUT (HINT: IT MAKES A GREAT T-SHIRT)
5. The Concert That Happened
4. The Concert That Almost Didn’t Happen And Celebrated The Concert That Didn’t Happen
3. The Concert That Didn’t Happen At First, But Then Happened After All, And Celebrated The Concert That Didn’t Happen
2. The Concert That Didn’t Happen At First, But Then Happened After All, And Celebrated The Concert That Didn’t Happen, (Which Sucked For All The Grillions Of Hippies Who Came To Town For A Concert That Didn’t Happen And Then Left An Unholy Mess Behind)