Hold The Hot Dog: National Park Visitors Can Feast On Bison Burgers

Jun 7, 2013
Originally published on June 7, 2013 8:29 pm

The director of the National Park Service doesn't have anything against hot dogs or pizza being served in eateries in national parks.

"But I wanted more options, and more healthy choices," Jonathan Jarvis told me at a tasting event this week to unveil new standards for the concessionaires who operate more than 250 food and beverage operations in national parks.

"There is no reason that you should have to take a vacation from eating well when you visit a national park," Jarvis told a group that had gathered on the National Mall to sample some of the most innovative new menu options.

As Jarvis announced details of the initiative, the crowd was distracted by the wafting aromas of sauteing crab cakes, a creation of chef Steven Sterritt of Skyland Resort in Shenandoah National Park.

"These are fresh jumbo lump Maryland crab with a roasted garlic b├ęchamel sauce. ... It's pure crab, no filler at all," Sterritt told me. Wow. That's a far cry from fried chicken tenders.

And instead of fries or potato chips, there were house chips made from beets and other vegetables.

"We are changing to a healthier fare, of course," Stefan Larsson of Yellowstone National Park told us as he served up things I'd never seen in national parks before.

"This is bison tenderloin," served with a dollop of horseradish sauce, Larsson told us. "Bison is flavorful and lean meat." Also on the menu: regional huckleberries, a rhubarb gazpacho and a brie-style cheese produced in the Yellowstone region.

"So, are park visitors surprised to see these kinds of dishes?" I asked. "Yes, I think so," Larsson told me. But folks are also usually impressed to find the regional cuisine and the fresh approach, he says.

Turns out there's only one flop, so far. Apparently, park visitors are not too keen for his take on ostrich meat. Hmmm. Perhaps the pace of change can come too fast.

The new standards are based, in part, on changes already in place in parks like Yellowstone, where concessions are run by Xanterra. As part of its Healthy and Sustainable Cuisine program, the company has pledged to adhere to naturally raised meats, cheeses from regional farms, no high-fructose corn syrup and baked goods sweetened with 30 percent less sugar than traditional preparations.

To usher in the new Park Service food initiative, the White House sent over Sam Kass of the Let's Move campaign, who noshed on almond-crusted baked chicken with a fennel salad.

"You know, baked is the new fried, so that looks delicious," he told the chef.

Kass told the group that the new initiative is "an important step toward making the healthier choice the easy choice for parents and kids."

And after tasting the baked chicken: thumbs up?

"Absolutely delicious!" Kass said, congratulating the chefs from Guest Services Inc. and Aramark, two additional companies that operate park concessions. "That's really innovative."

Aramark's vice president for food and beverage, Brian Stapleton, told us that his company has worked with regional wholesalers to procure more local produce and meat.

And how does the new park food initiative influence the bottom line of the companies serving up the food?

Well, Rick Abramson, president of Delaware North, which has a contract to run eateries at Shenandoah National Park, didn't hold back in answering me when I asked.

"We're a commercial company, and we're in this to make money," he told me.

Abramson says there's demand for these new options: "What the market wants is what we deliver."

So does this new initiative mean park visitors will pay more? Not for basic concession-stand foods like pizza or ice cream, which will be staying on the menu.

But the Park Service says even the newer, fancier offerings will still be affordable.

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If you're in Acadia National Park this summer, you might try the famous popover at Jordan Pond House Restaurant, or in Yellowstone, a big tasty bison burger. What you might not find are a lot of healthful options. Well, the park service has a new initiative to up its game when it comes to the healthfulness of its food. NPR's Allison Aubrey got a preview tasting of what visitors can expect.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Jon Jarvis has been a park ranger for a long time. From Mount Rainier to the National Mall in D.C., he's been wearing the green and gray uniform and ranger hat for nearly 40 years. And for much of this time, one thought run through his mind.

JON JARVIS: You know, if I was in charge, this is what I would do, and so I sort of accumulated a list over those years.

AUBREY: Well, now, Jarvis is in charge. He's the director of the National Park Service. And when it comes to changing things up, food has been near the top of his list. Jarvis says he visited too many parks where the concessions left him wanting.

JARVIS: You know, it was pizza or hotdogs or something, and nothing wrong with those foods, but I wanted more options and more healthy choices.

AUBREY: And now, he's getting them. From Yellowstone to the Shenandoah, park food is getting a makeover.

STEVEN STERRITT: These are fresh jumbo lump Maryland crab, and it's got a roasted garlic bechamel sauce folded in with it, and that's it. It's pure crab, no filler at all.

AUBREY: New guidelines announced this week require the companies that run food and beverage operations in national parks to up their games when it comes to offering wholesome and sustainable options. And chef Steven Sterritt, of Skyland Resort in Shenandoah National Park, is leading the way. What makes this new or different?

STERRITT: New or different is just our new approach on things, you know? Simple cuisine, you know, for the (unintelligible), the main ingredients speak for itself.

AUBREY: Now to give a sampling of what national park visitors can expect, the Park Service set up a big food tent along the National Mall this week and invited chefs from across the country. Stefan Larsson, a native Norwegian, is executive chef at Yellowstone National Park, which has multiple eateries.

STEFAN LARSSON: We are changing to a healthier fare, of course.

AUBREY: And local ingredients are getting bigger play. Larsson points to seasonal berries, local cheeses and, of course, local meat.

LARSSON: We have the bison here, smoked with juniper berries. Here we have rhubarb gazpacho.

AUBREY: Can I taste the bison? Larsson says bison tends to be lower in fat than beef, and he likes the flavor. Oh, wow, that is fabulous. What is the sauce?

LARSSON: That's fresh horseradish and a low-fat sour cream.

AUBREY: To usher in the national park food initiative, the White House sent over Sam Kass, who heads up the first lady's Let's Move! campaign. He was served an almond-crusted chicken tender with a fennel salad.

SAM KASS: You know, baked is the new fried, so that looks absolutely delicious. That's really innovative. Yeah, yeah, I would love to taste that.

AUBREY: Kass says it's significant that the national parks are helping to make healthy choices the easy choices.

KASS: That baked chicken tender is absolutely delicious.

AUBREY: So does this new initiative mean that park visitors will pay more not for basic concession stand food, but the Park Service says even the newer offerings will still be affordable. Rick Abramson, president of Delaware North, which runs eateries at Shenandoah National Park, says this could be really good for his company's bottom-line.

RICK ABRAMSON: We're a commercial company, OK? We're in it to make money. And, you know, what the market wants is what we deliver.

AUBREY: Abramson says there is demand for these new options. He's sure of it. It doesn't mean taking away old favorites. The strategy here is to add healthier options to the mix. Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.