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Sundance chef takes his act to New York

Sundance Resort's executive chef Jason Knibb has an obvious flair for tickling the taste buds of skiers, celebrities and other well-heeled guests. This Saturday, New Yorkers will find out what they've been missing when Knibb cooks with four other renowned chefs for a James Beard House dinner.

Beard, a cookbook author who pioneered some of the first television cooking shows, is widely recognized as the father of American gastronomy. After he died in 1985, Julia Child and other friends bought his New York City house and preserved it as the foodie gathering spot. Today, the James Beard Foundation promotes the culinary world through events, scholarships and annual awards.

On a regular basis, foundation members invite distinguished chefs from around the country to present dinners at the house. Other Utah chefs who have been honored include David Jones (Log Haven), Clark Norris (Deer Valley), Scott Blackerby (formerly of Bambara), Jonathan Perno (formerly of Metropolitan), Gerard Brunett (formerly of Stein Eriksen Lodge), and Barbara Hill and Jean-Louis Montecot (formerly of Sundance).

This is the third time Knibb has cooked at the Beard house, so he knows the challenges. "It's fun but stressful. The kitchen is really small, and the other chefs are also there cooking, so it's all about the timing," he said. "You orchestrate it so every chef is helping and creating an assembly line. You have to prepare 85 plates, and they have to be the best-looking plates you've ever put up. It's a lot of pressure knowing of the people who have cooked and been there before you, but it's great to be among some of the top chefs in the world."

Each chef does an hors d'oeuvre and one course of the meal. Knibb is doing the entree — a medallion of braised boneless short ribs with a black truffle and celery root puree, topped off with salad of julienned pears, apples and shredded frisee (salad greens).

Knibb calls the event a "great regional chef's reunion dinner," because they're from different regions of the country and most are friends, having worked together at some point in their career. He'll be cooking with Michael Kramer of McCrady's in Charleston, S.C.; Patrick Coston of Ilo in New York City; Michael Symon of Restaurant Lola in Cleveland; and Trey Foshee, the former Sundance chef who is now at George's on the Cove in LaJolla, Calif.

On Friday morning, Knibb will braise the ribs in the Sundance kitchen and vacuum-seal them in juices for shipping before heading to the airport. "We'll do the finishing touches when we get there," he said.

It's a heady experience for someone who started out as a busboy and worked his way up through the ranks of restaurant kitchens. Born in Jamaica and raised in California, Knibb developed both a passion for surfing and an instinct for flavoring dishes.

"Food is a big part of our culture in Jamaica," he said. "I grew up on curried goat and jerk chicken and things that were full of flavor, so I learned how to use different spices."

He also honed his culinary skills while working in restaurants owned by well-known chefs such as Wolfgang Puck and Roy Yamaguchi. "I learned a lot of techniques from the chefs and from my peers," he said. "They schooled me in things like sauces and prep work, and I took what I could from reading and educating myself. Even if you've gone to culinary school and have a degree, you may not have the experience of running and maintaining a kitchen, hiring, staffing, ordering products, orchestrating the menus and all the other responsibilities of the job."

One chef he worked with was Foshee, who eventually became Sundance's executive chef (and one of Food & Wine's Top Ten New Chefs of 1998 while at Sundance.)

"When Trey called and asked me if I'd like to come and work with him, I said, 'Who'd want to move to Utah?' " Knibb recalled. "But a year later he called again, and it made more sense at that point."

So he became the resort's executive sous chef. When Foshee moved to LaJolla in 1999, he recommended Knibb for the top job of overseeing the casual Foundry Gill and the Tree Room. Under Knibb's direction, the Tree Room has received numerous awards, including a AAA Four-Diamond rating. He gave up surfing for snowboarding, and his wife, Denise Bernier, manages the resort's General Store. They now have a 12-week-old son, Oliver William.

When asked who does the cooking at home, Knibb said, "It depends on the timing. Now that my wife is busy taking care of the baby, she likes me to cook because I can get in and out of the kitchen a lot quicker."

Knibb's speed in the kitchen was apparent while following him around in the Sundance kitchens. He chopped carrots and celery with rapid-fire precision, all the while explaining how they will flavor the pork tenderloin's chanterelle mushroom sauce. He mixed a chili garlic dressing into a huge batch of potato salad with his hands. And within minutes he sauteed a cornmeal-crusted trout with spicy chopped veggies. A generous ladle of ancho chile broth gave the dish some kick.

"By adding a little zing, you can change the perception of fishy-fish or gamey meats," he said. "But you don't want to get too creative or over the top. You want the dish to be simple but interesting."

Knibb follows the trend of using fresh, local ingredients that are in season. He likes buying from farmers' markets and local purveyors, such as Shepherd's Dairy goat cheese and Morgan Valley Ranch lamb.

"If you don't have good products, it's hard to make great food," he said.

Cooking at Sundance means cooking for its owner, actor Robert Redford. "I was a little nervous at first, but you have to have confidence in what you do. And, he gave me the opportunity to be the chef here, so hopefully he enjoys what I do," said Knibb. "He's well-traveled, well-educated, and he's eaten in the best restaurants all over the world. So when he dines here and tells us we're doing a good job, and the food is up there with everyone in New York, that's as good as it gets. He'll often send me menus from other places so I can see what other chefs are doing. He's very into the food."

Although Knibb is the boss, he's always willing to step in and help, said Thomas Meehan, the Tree Room's lead line cook. "He's the only chef I've every seen who will clean the deep-fryer, and that's usually the job of the dishwasher or the prep cook."


CORNMEAL-CRUSTED TROUT

Trout fillets

Cornmeal for dipping

Vegetables as desired (black beans, corn, chopped zucchini, squash, red onion, tomato)

Chopped cilantro to taste

Ancho chili sauce (see recipe below)

Preheat oven to 375. Dredge trout in cornmeal and place it in an oven-proof skillet. Roast trout 2-3 minutes on each side in oven, until it's golden brown. Remove skillet from oven and slide fish to one side.

Add desired vegetables and cilantro to the skillet and saute on stovetop until vegetables are hot. Ladle on a little ancho chile sauce and put the skillet back in the oven for a few minutes before serving.

Ancho chile broth:

5 ancho chiles

5 New Mexico chiles

1 onion, roughly chopped

2-3 cloves garlic, chopped

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Place chiles in the oven for about 30 seconds, until they begin to swell. Take them out of the oven and pull out the seeds. In a medium sauce pot, saute the onion and garlic overmedium heat until golden brown and tender.

Add the chiles. Saute 2-3 minutes. Cover with a little vegetable stock or chicken stock and simmer on low heat until chiles are tender. Add a little salt and pepper and puree in the blender to make a thick paste.

This can be used as a pesto, a rub for meat and to add flavor fish, etc. To thin out the sauce, add about 2/3 cup of chicken or vegetable broth for every cup of paste. — Jason Knibb, Sundance


BEET AND HARICOT VERT SALAD

6 baby beets (the smallest ones you can find)

1 pound mixed green beans, including french and yellow wax, if available

4 ounces roasted pistachios

1/2 pound arugula, cleaned

1 shallot, minced

2 cups mustard vinaigrette (recipe below)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place a medium-size pot of water on medium heat to boil, add a handful of salt to the water. Place beets in a pie tin with a cup of water. Cover and roast 30-40 minutes. While the beets are roasting, add the beans to the boiling water for about 4 minutes. If they slide off easily, they are done. Remove beans from the water and put them in ice water to cool, then set aside. Check the beets by poking them with a knife. After the beets cool, gently rub the skin off the beets by placing them into a paper towel and rubbing them.

To assemble, slice the beets into quarter-inch-thick circles. Place the slices on a medium-size plate, creating a circle. In a bowl combine the beans, minced shallot, pistachios, arugula and dress with mustard vinaigrette. Mix well; season with salt and pepper to taste. Place the arugula in the middle of the beets and pile the beans on top of the arugula. To garnish, drizzle the dressing around the plate.

Pistachio vinaigrette:

1/2 cup white balsamic or white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 cup pistachio oil

1 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Add all ingredients, except oil, in a blender. Turn on blender to low and slowly add oil until emulsified. Season with salt and pepper to taste. — Jason Knibb, Sundance Resort


E-MAIL: vphillips@desnews.com