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  • Writer's pictureJerry

The Harvest Grill and Greens at James Ranch, Durango Colorado

Updated: Aug 22, 2019

"Chef Jerry was important to our operation this summer and his contributions will be valuable as we grow our business!"

Cynthia Stewart, Chef/Owner - The Harvest Grill & Greens at James Ranch - Durango CO

James Ranch, Durango CO

I had the pleasure of working for Cynthia and Robert Stewart at The Harvest Grill and Greens for four months during the summer of 2018. The Grill is the ultimate in "farm to table" food since many of the ingredients served there are produced on the ranch where the restaurant is located. These include their own grass fed and finished beef, award winning cheeses, heirloom pork, eggs from free range chickens and organic produce. This is a very special place and I highly recommend a visit if you're in the area.

The Harvest Grill & Greens Signature Burger

I connected with the Stewart's in the middle of the summer when they had an unexpected shortage of help. They were looking for a line cook and after checking out their website I was happy to take the position. I have never worked with fresher or higher quality ingredients.

The kitchen trailer, retired after eight great years..

I referred to their “restaurant” above, but it was actually a kitchen trailer with an outbuilding for prep. The dining area was a beautiful terraced lawn overlooking their valley with the Rockies in the background. From there you could watch the dairy herd grazing as well as a handful of the 300 chickens they keep. For eight years they’ve operated this way with fantastic results. Their ratings on social media are as good as I’ve seen, and they’ve earned it.

James Ranch Reserve Belford, aged 9-12 months. This is the cheese you see melted on the burger above.

Coming Soon - The Restaurant

After a great run with the kitchen trailer, they’re building a restaurant and attached market, set to open spring of 2019. The expanded climate-controlled seating will allow them to be open year-round and the large kitchen will be able to serve many more diners. I'm planning to return to Durango in the spring to help launch the new restaurant.

My Experience at The Harvest Grill & Greens

Most of my time was spent working the grill station and doing some prep. It had been a while since I had cooked on a line and it was great to jump into it again. Of course I’m always on the lookout for ways to streamline operations, and this was no exception. Below are a few examples, which taken together earned me the title of “MacGyver”. Not the first time I’ve been called that but appreciated all the same.

• TICKET MACHINE: The ticket machine was on a high shelf in the kitchen, almost 6 feet from the floor. For us altitude-challenged chefs, the only way we could check to see if a ticket had come in was to reach up and feel for it. My solution involved buying a concave mirror meant for side-view mirrors on cars, and attaching it to the ceiling so that we could simply glance up and see the tickets.

• TICKET HOLDER: When I arrived at the ranch, they were using a single ticket system where the salad/expo person would share the ticket with the grill/griddle chef. There was a ticket holder strip approximately in the middle of the two stations, and one in front of the expo station. This arrangement worked fine when it wasn’t too busy but not as well during peak periods. Often the expo person would take the ticket from the middle and move it to their station before the grill chef completed the order. With several combinations of burger toppings, and the fact that they cook to temperatures rare - well done, depending on memory was inefficient. My solution was to install a third ticket holder in front of the grill chef and to purchase rolls of ticket paper with a duplicate copy. This way, both stations had a ticket to reference until the order was completed.

• BAND & BURGER NIGHT HOT LINE: Once a week during the summer, The Grill hosted a live band with admission including a limited menu, mainly burgers. Typically 150 people or more would show up and order their burgers within a very short time. The heavy and sudden volume meant that the small kitchen trailer would be swamped with orders. Counter and floor space were very limited and keeping up with the orders was quite challenging. My solution involved utilizing the “prep barn”, a small outbuilding only a few feet away with dish area, reach-in cooler, oven, and an 8-foot-long work table. Basically we treated the prep barn as an extension of the hot line. In the prep barn using the duplicate tickets, we would set up the baskets on trays for each order and deliver them to the kitchen trailer, complete with chips, condiments, toasted buns and instructions on which burger went with which basket. This allowed us to remotely add two more people to the line, greatly simplify the work in the trailer, and significantly reduce the time to pick up orders.

• BUTTERED BUNS: Each wonderful burger from The Grill is served on a locally baked brioche bun which is brushed with organic clarified butter and toasted on the griddle. Part of daily prep was to slice the buns, and then they were buttered to order using a pastry brush. They had tried the old diner standby butter roller but it didn’t work well. It seemed to me that applying the butter with a pastry brush, and to order, was inconsistent and also time-consuming during shifts when tickets never seemed to stop coming. So, I experimented with buttering the buns in advance and repacking them in the plastic bags they came in. I buttered one, waited 24 hours, and then toasted and sampled it next to a freshly buttered and toasted bun. No one could tell them apart. From then on, we added pre-buttering the buns to the prep list. Since we were already slicing the buns in advance I believe buttering them at the same time might even keep them from drying out.

• BUTTERED BUNS, PHASE II: When we first starting buttering the buns as daily prep, we were using a pastry bush. It was messy, slow and inconsistent. I devised a method that was at least twice as fast, neater and more uniform. The idea was based on the same principle as using a damp sponge to apply moisture to a stamp. (millennials and younger, see “postage stamp”) I purchased 4 X 12-inch soft sponge material and cut it to fit into a half hotel pan. Hot butter is added to the pan and the buns are simply pushed down into the buttered sponge to coat them. Both sides of a bun can be done simultaneously in about one second. This “device” became known as the Butterator 3000.

• FLOOR PLAN MODIFICATION: I love kitchen design, and Cynthia allowed me to review the plans to their future restaurant. She and Robert had done a lot of research, and even though they had no restaurant experience prior to opening The Grill, I think their design is very efficient. I did make a suggestion for the dining area which they incorporated into the plans, and which I believe will serve them well. The upper portion of the wall between the kitchen and dining area is enclosed with glass. I recommended adding a counter for seating along that wall with 10 bar stools. It’s nice to pick up 10 additional seats but the main advantage is that the counter will serve as natural and comfortable seating for single diners. Most people feel awkward using a deuce or a four-top to dine alone. With the counter seating, these diners will feel comfortable taking their time to eat and they won’t be rendering 1 – 3 seats useless during their meal. I also believe that the counter will be a place where people interact with each other, when they most likely wouldn’t have, seated alone at a table.

There were other ways I found to add value such as developing recipes, refining cooking techniques, etc. Some changes won’t translate to the new restaurant but I hope to join Cynthia and Robert in the spring to help them open the new place.

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