Kanab: It's About the Sizzle
In the 1870s, Major John Wesley Powell set up a survey camp in Kanab for an expedition into the Grand Canyon. It was there that Powell's team created a map that first recorded the name "Grand Canyon." (Read the story: Chasing John Wesley Powell) As Rocking V Cafe owner Victor Cooper tells it, "Kanab was truly the end of the road, part of the last stretch of land surveyed in the U.S."
Today, Kanab boasts an unexpectedly refined culinary scene in this remote outpost to adventure, in the southernmost part of Utah.
Cooper opened Rocking V Cafe in 2000 and immediately differentiated it not only with its eclectic menu, but its brightly colored decor, off-beat personality and big city hospitality. In the new geography of Kanab's culinary scene, Rocking V Cafe was "pretty much the lone island" in town until Sego Restaurant opened 15 years later.
Cooper, who narrates the video above, served as a tour guide for a group of us who visited to see and taste all that Kanab has to offer.
Without any coffee, Cooper sustained conversation and boundless enthusiasm from 7 a.m. until after sundown. That's the benefit, he says, of not being a coffee drinker: You have the ability to hop out of bed and get right to it. That energy matters because it's a foundation of his business model. He'll always graciously and enthusiastically welcome anyone to his restaurant, and demands the same of his staff.
"With the fiber of my being, I get it. I understand the experience because I've been on the other side of the equation. You're excited to be here. And I love people. It's like a drug. You meet these people from all over the world and you're sharing in their joy."
How does that enthusiasm translate to the plate? "You can get a steak anywhere — it's not as good as ours — but it's about the experience that comes with it." At one time, Cooper's salesman father sold Omaha Steaks and informed his son that it's not about the steak it's about the sizzle. (Though at Rocking V, it is a perfectly marbled cut of rangeland Ribeye fired to a buttery finish and topped with green peppercorn-brandy demi-glace, among other cuts.)
The Rising Tide
We are discussing Cooper's business ethic outside Kanab Creek Bakery in the chilly mid-October morning. I run a bit cold, so I've layered up for the day and am comfortable sitting on the outdoor patio sipping at hot coffee in one of the bakery's heavy, handmade ceramic mugs.
"The bottom line is, bad service reflects poorly on the whole town," says Cooper.
We are joined by Walt Thirion, an environmental conservation photographer and restaurateur who shares Cooper's passion for top-tier hospitality, food and Kanab's abundant natural beauty. Thirion keeps a clean and bright studio and gallery space next door to the bakery — which in turn is supported by the culinary stylings of nearby Sego Restaurant's chef, Shon Foster.
"Exactly," Thirion agrees. "The service we provide, it's not 'It's good for a small town.' It's good on any level." In addition to the bakery, Thirion recently opened Vermillion 45, a casual French and Italian comfort-food bistro that stays open late during peak seasons. "It's a small town, yes. And yes, you compete, but only one place is not going to carry it. This competition is good for the town. We're all in this together."
"It's the mentality that the rising tide lifts all boats," says Cooper. Though it took several years for the scene to expand, the conversation has changed.
"When Shon opened Sego it was huge. He's from here. Here's this guy, he's one of ours. People saw that. And then Walt opens the French bakery, and who doesn't like a bakery?"
Besides being a local, Chef Shon Foster brought an award-winning resume to Sego that included a stop at the helm of luxury resort Amangiri's kitchen. Sego Restaurant focuses on regional and new American cuisine in a rotating menu with seasonal ingredients.
The friendly competition produces incredible results because everyone in the new culinary landscape seems to have adopted Cooper's top objective.
"I don't want to be good, I don't want to be great. I want to be excellent," he says.
Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is a no-kill animal shelter with a golden rule to treat all living things as we ourselves would wish to be treated. That Golden Rule is supported by principles of kindness, positive influence, leadership, authenticity and transparency. How does that tie into Kanab's culinary scene? Best Friends co-founders Francis and Silva Battista own Peekaboo Canyon Wood Fired Grill, a vegetarian and vegan restaurant that lives up to the sanctuary's guiding principles.
Peekaboo Canyon (named after the nearby Peekaboo slot canyon) opened early to accommodate our visit so we could meet the team behind the restaurant. Early in our conversation, three women wandered in asking for a table. Since the restaurant wasn't officially opened, the staff checked with general manager Kathie Chadbourne if they could accommodate the women. Without hesitation, she said "yes," then quickly turned to executive chef Michael Cooper to confirm the kitchen was, in fact, ready and turned back and reaffirmed, "yes." There was no way Chadbourne would let the women leave disappointed. Kathy's sense of hospitality infuses Peekaboo Canyon where it mixes with the ethos of compassion embodied by the Battistas.
We're all drinking coffee already and Chadbourne is quick to grab the pot off the burner and keep cups full. The dishes start arriving. Quina Dressed Avocado, Southwestern Salad, one of their wood-fired pizzas and the best bowl of oatmeal I've ever had — and I've had this oatmeal before. She sees me eating and asks, "Isn't that the best oatmeal? That's Christine and Rob's out of Stanton, Oregon. It's been on every menu I've ever built." The chilly mid-October mornings had me craving it, and I remember it from Chadbourne's former venture, Avenues Bistro, in Salt Lake City.
Chadbourne also brought a motto from the Bistro: "Community, Conversation and Cuisine." She says how her whole life is about this motto, and was thrilled by the opportunity to take it Kanab. "It's just kind of what I do, and I get to do it here," she says, putting an emphasis on "here" and motioning to the space around her.
To the space around Kanab? Francis Battista turns to the sanctuary to describe it: "So much of the work of Best Friends is inspired by the environment of the canyons and this whole area. It is transformative."
And the skies themselves are as spectacular and ever-changing and ever-dramatic and as the land," adds Silva Battista.
"I think we all believe the beauty of this area is its most valuable resource. It's irreplaceable," says Mr. Battista. "Of course, we're right here on the doorstep of the monument, which is a spectacular and amazing place as well."
These days, this culinary scene at the "end of the road" welcomes an international clientele thanks to Kanab's central position among that national monument, Grand Staircase–Escalante, the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Lake Powell, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area and other destinations. Increasingly, locals are getting to know what's on the menu too.
Stars and smores
The BMY 5-ton military cargo truck rumbles to life with a spurt of diesel fumes and begins lumbering down the red sand and clay road, lately rippled from heavy rains. We've booked the S'mores and Star Gazing Tour and our local guides, Norris and Jayme Church of Adventure Tour Company, take us to the site of an old movie fort, a classic location of Hollywood Westerns that even made a recent appearance in HBO's "Westworld." (Read the story: Westworld: Go There Now)
You don't have to go far to see pristine dark skies out here. Kanab's "remote outpost" quality shines in this regard. In addition to minimal light pollution from the size of the small town, it's miles from any other town and squarely within the Great Western Starry Way belt of accredited Dark Sky Places from Montana to Arizona. (Though it's worth noting Kanab is less than 90 minutes from St. George and 30 minutes from Zion's east entrance.)
This is the iconic West. The location is surrounded by the distinctively sculpted sandstone cliffs that define southwestern Utah. We're in the Vermillion Layer of the Grand Staircase, a massive geological feature of descending plateaus and mesas, punctuated by towering buttes and carved by slot canyons — and in the dwindling light, that aptly named golden-hour light, these Vermillion Cliffs pop beneath bright blue skies.
Our hosts are preparing the fire that will cook our marshmallows and warm us as the night's chill creeps in. Sometimes there's no arguing with camping comforts of graham, squares of chocolate and the pursuit of the perfectly roasted marshmallow. True to the town's emerging identity, Jayme Church brought a batch of homemade marshmallows on the trip. Lingering cloud cover from the weather system prevented a full view on the dark skies, but breaks in the clouds created windows to the dark canvas of the star-pricked universe.
On the ride back, dust from the truck mingled with fog that developed in the cooling air. Out the back of the truck, darkness quickly overwhelms the furthest reach of the tail lights. This is still a remote place. Much of the surrounding lands remain as wild and untouched nearly 150 years after John Wesley Powell's team set up camp to survey this part of the American West for the first time. Kanab was a tiny settlement eking out a living from Kanab Creek and an early reservoir. Now, as good as the s'mores were, I'm glad to know that Vermillion 45 is still open. I'm feeling like dessert and a glass of wine.