Cooking at 10,000 Feet: Storm Peak Laboratory Kitchen Visits

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

We love kitchen tours, here at The Kitchn, and while we enjoy peeking into people’s homes, from time to time we also visit other, more unusual kitchens. Storm Peak Laboratory was definitely one of those.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

The kitchen is not too fancy, but oh that view!

Storm Peak Lab is at the top of a mountain in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and at any given time it is home to a dozen (or more) scientists doing short-term research projects at the top of the mountain. These projects range from measuring snow grain size with massively expensive pieces of equipment to tracking the effects of beetles on the local pine trees. There are also ongoing, long-term projects to track moisture and pollution in the air.

Since researchers regularly stay up there overnight, and the two scientists who care for the station spend 75% of their time there during the busy winter season, this place has a real kitchen! It’s not much to look at; there are no granite countertops or stainless steel refrigerator. It was definitely designed and implemented for pure functionality, on a research budget!

But this kitchen is the heart of the place — maybe more so than any other kitchen I’ve ever seen.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

A hot lunch.

Everything happens in this kitchen: From research meetings, to lunchtime cooking, to last-minute wiring of expensive equipment. At this altitude, and in this cold, hot food and drinks are a frequent priority, too. You burn calories fast, working out in the 8-foot-deep snow!

And since this station is at the top of a mountain, every resource means something different than it does down at sea level. The little station is perched next to a ski lift, and at an altitude of 10,500 feet. During the winter it is only accessible by snowmobile, skis, or snowcat. Every piece of food has to be trucked up in the snowcat, which is a cross between a snowmobile and a bulldozer. Water for washing-up comes from melted snow, shoveled laboriously into huge melting tanks and then purified through a series of filters. Drinking water is sent up separately in bottles.

My husband had a week of fieldwork at Storm Peak Lab last month, and one day I tagged along and worked in the warm cozy kitchen, looking out the giant picture windows. This kitchen may be small and basic, but it feeds people so well, and it has a view anyone would swoon over!

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Dr. Gannet Hallar, SPL Director, and Ian McCubbin, Site Manager

Gannet Hallar and Ian McCubbin are a married couple who act as caretakers of the station, overseeing everything from government-funded research projects to equipment transportation to the weekly menus for visiting scientists. They are great hosts, and obviously very fond of their little aerie on top of the mountain.

I asked Gannet and Ian a few questions about the kitchen and how it works for them — here are their answers!

1. What’s your cooking style?
Americana; short ribs, stews, bbq chicken…

2. What inspires your kitchen?
At the lab, time is always in short demand! So speed inspires this kitchen.

3. What is your favorite kitchen tool or element?
When cooking for 9 to 12 people in such a small space, the crock-pot often saves the day. At the lab, we must discourage frying foods, due to the small space and lack of ventilation. The building is well-sealed both to keep us warm and cozy, but also to prevent the odors of the kitchen outside to contaminate our air samples.

4. Best cooking advice or tip you ever received:
My sister, Tracy, is a professional organizer (DClutterfly) and her tips on eliminating clutter are essential in this crazy/busy kitchen.

5. Biggest challenge in your kitchen:
By far our biggest challenge is space! Often we have 5 people trying to fix individual lunches in this small space. It is constantly a dance around the refrigerator.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

The precious Nespresso machine! This was in use all day when I was there.

6. Biggest indulgence:
Without a doubt, our Nespresso coffee machine and milk frother are the best! This makes a great, hot cappuccino in seconds.

7. Dream tool or splurge:
We are dreaming and looking for a new refrigerator — definitely need a larger one.

8. What are you cooking this week?
This week, we have a graduate class from the University of Colorado visiting and pasta is on the menu.

9. What cookbook has inspired you the most?
We love all of Mark Bittman’s cookbooks, especially “The Minimalist Cooks at Home,” which works well at Storm Peak Lab. Baking is obviously difficult at 10,500 ft. The best cookbook that I have found is “Pie in the Sky” by Susan Purdy.

10. What’s the most memorable meal you’ve ever cooked in this kitchen?
A few years ago, we had a graduate student, Subhashree, living at Storm Peak Lab. She brought a container of Indian spices and made chai everyday. It was wonderful and perfect to take away the chill after working outdoors.

Thanks so much, Gannet and Ian!

Have you ever encountered a kitchen in an extreme or unusual location? I always find it fascinating to see how people cook in unusual places, and how much the very act of cooking and eating keeps people in extreme situations grounded and comfortable. The kitchen is the heart of the home — and, in this case, the research station!

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(Images: Faith Durand)