A chef for your more intrepid summer adventures
Photography by Michelle Magdalena
Good food and the great outdoors have long gone hand-in-hand for Zac Creager, owner of Santa Cruz’s Midtown Café, who has fond memories of growing up and taking family horseback trips in the Eastern Sierra Nevada.
His love of wild places and food has led him to a unique destination— a side business called Sierra Gourmet Backcountry Catering, for which he cooks meals made with organic and quality ingredients for outdoor adventurers.
“It is quite a niche,” says Creager, who learned the fine points of open-fire cooking from South American gauchos while working as a trekking guide on the Northern Patagonian Ice Field in Chile.
Creager spent several seasons as a guide there, alternating with stints helping manage the Santa Cruz Farmers’ Markets and working as a cook at numerous Santa Cruz restaurants, as well as Feel Good Foods organic catering. Together, these experiences led Creager to launch Sierra Gourmet three years ago.
Creager had to put Sierra Gourmet on hold last year while getting the café up and running; with that accomplished, he’s now turning his attention back to the outdoor catering business.
“It’s fun for me,” he says of Sierra Gourmet. “It’s a combination of enjoying some beautiful locations and having really cool gigs.” Cool gigs, indeed. Among them, he has cooked for rock climbers in Yosemite and a children’s adventure camp in the Sierra.
Being based in Santa Cruz, there’s no problem obtaining great ingredients, and his strong connections with local farmers make it a simple process. “We have so much access to wonderful produce that it’s not an issue,” Creager says.
Unlike the crusty chuck wagon cooks of yore, Creager puts a personal touch on his services—decorating tables with pinecones and wild sage, providing camping gear and lounge chairs and even starting the nighttime fire so that hikers can come back from their day to a cozy, stress-free campsite. His girlfriend, Justine Grajski, the baker at Midtown Café, provides cookies and other sweet treats.
A former trekking guide, Creager can organize your entire backcountry adventure.
“We can go anywhere,” Creager says, noting that ultralight cooking equipment and state-of-the-art coolers allow him to take his kitchen far into the wilderness. “We figure out a way to make it happen.”
But if a big trek deep into the wild is not in the cards for you, and rather, something less ambitious—say, a family reunion or corporate retreat in Big Sur or the Santa Cruz Mountains—is more your speed, Creager is happy to accommodate.
“We can plan anything, provide naturalists or guides, put together any trip,” says Creager.
SIERRA GOURMET BACKCOUNTRY CATERING
sierragourmetcatering.com • firstname.lastname@example.org
DIY: TIPS FROM SIERRA BACKCOUNTRY GOURMET
Zac Creager says it’s not hard to prepare the perfect backcountry meal— but it does require dedicating ample time to planning and prepping.
- Start by deciding whether to make meals ahead or at the campsite— or avoid much cooking at all. You can prepare food at home and pack it along, as in the case of sandwiches or wraps. Depending on where you’re going, you could also plan to cook at a campsite, but those opportunities may be limited this summer due to tinder-dry drought conditions.
Another alternative is to pack finger foods that guests can use to create their own meals, like cut-up veggies, salami, hummus with pita chips, and cheeses with jams and crackers.
- A good quality cooler is essential for keeping perishable food at safe temperatures. Creager’s personal choice for his business is Yeti coolers, which he says are “insanely expensive.” An Igloo, he adds, is sufficient for most short outings. To keep food colder longer, Creager recommends pre-chilling the cooler before going, and placing some dry ice at the bottom, beneath the food, and regular ice on top.
- Consider designating one cooler for food and a separate one for beverages. “When the cooler is being opened and closed all day [for people to reach in for drinks], it lets so much of the cold escape,” Creager says.