Arts and Culture

At kosher ski restaurant in Park City, an avalanche of challenges

Park City Mountain in Utah, where America's only kosher slopeside restaurant is located, is also the nation's largest ski area, at 7,300 acres. (Uriel Heilman)

PARK CITY, Utah (JTA) – Laurent Masliah likes wine as much as the next Frenchman.

But that’s not why he bought up every last bottle of kosher wine in the state of Utah and is desperately angling for more.

Masliah is the general manager of Prime at Canyons, the nation’s only kosher slope-side restaurant. It’s located in this glitzy Utah ski town at the base of what is now America’s largest ski area – thanks to a gondola, completed last summer, that links Canyons with next-door Park City Mountain.

Between the good food, fantastic skiing and lack of any kosher competition for hundreds of miles in any direction, Prime is doing brisk business. But because the only way to purchase wine in Mormon-majority Utah is via state liquor stores, Masliah is in a bind. He just doesn’t have enough of the stuff.

Laurent Masliah runs the nation's only slopeside kosher restaurant, Prime at Canyons, in Park City, Utah. (Uriel Heilman)
Laurent Masliah runs the nation’s only slopeside kosher restaurant, Prime at Canyons, in Park City, Utah. (Uriel Heilman)

The order he placed three weeks ago with the state store, as required by law, still hasn’t come through.

“I have no cabernet. I’m running low on merlot,” Masliah told JTA in a recent interview at the restaurant. “At this point, I want to make sure I have at least a glass of red and a glass of white to offer customers. My ambitions have sunk pretty low.”

Getting kosher wine is just one of the many unique challenges of running a kosher restaurant on a ski mountain in a remote Western state with hardly any Jews.

There are others. For starters, all the meat and specialty kosher items are trucked in from New York, where the restaurant company’s headquarters and lead eatery, Prime Grill, are located. Getting a mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, in Park City wasn’t easy; there’s almost no Orthodox Jewish population in Utah to speak of (though there are Chabad centers in Park City and Salt Lake City).

Even finding waitstaff is a problem. Most young people who come to Utah for winter are ski bums; waiting tables is a secondary occupation. One of the restaurant’s waitresses was put of commission early in the season after she shattered her ankle skiing. She was back after several weeks, but had to serve while hobbling around on a walking cast. Another waitress is the mashgiach’s wife; the couple, from New York, decided to come to Utah as an adventure.

When it comes to cooking, there are the vicissitudes of preparing food at a high altitude – in this case, 6,800 feet elevation. Baking takes longer, dough rises faster and some dishes require longer cooking times because water boils at a lower temperature. Then there’s the problem of exploding food packages. Because air pressure is lower and gases expand at higher altitudes, bags of chips and other foods often burst open during shipping.

“I was very surprised by how many effects there are to the altitude,” said Masliah, 46, who worked as a ski instructor in France when he was 18. “Almost everything has to be cooked slightly differently.”

Though there has been a kosher restaurant at this site in Canyons’ Silverado Lodge since 2012, this is the eatery’s debut season under the ownership of Prime Grill, one of New York’s premier kosher establishments. (The previous restaurant, called Bistro at Canyons, was run by the resort).

Joey Allaham, owner of the Prime Hospitality Group, said that when he first decided to buy the restaurant this fall – at the behest of Vail Resorts, which owns Park City Mountain and whose CEO, Rob Katz, is a graduate of Ramaz Jewish day school in New York — his wife told him he was crazy. Allaham, a 41-year-old Jew who grew up in Syria and now lives in New York, knew nothing about snow until he came to the United States.

But after he opened Prime at Canyons in early December and flew out to Utah to see how things were going, he said he encountered a level of customer appreciation he had never experienced before.

“When people come down from skiing, all they want to do is have a piece of meat,” Allaham told JTA. “I never saw such excitement in people’s faces to see food. They told me they never had something like this – real kosher food at the mountain. They were used to surviving on tuna fish sandwiches and protein bars.”

The menu at Prime at Canyons has some commonalities with Prime Grill: There’s the steak filet ($49), slow-cooked lamb ribs ($54) and mustard-crusted salmon ($40). But the menu is also adapted for the simpler dishes skiers tend to crave after a day on the slopes, according to Laurent: chili ($18), burgers ($29), nachos ($17), chicken pot pie ($36). It’s less fine dining and more comfort food, he said, and the Utah menu is a bit less expensive than the New York menu.

Prime at Canyons is only open for dinner, but kosher skiers can buy Prime’s prepared kosher sandwiches and wraps (tuna, egg salad, turkey, pastrami, roast beef, peanut butter and jelly) during the day at the mid-mountain Red Pine Lodge. Prime at Canyons also is open on Shabbat, for those who pre-order meals.

Most days, there’s a daily Orthodox minyan prayer service next door, at 4000 Canyons Resort Drive (visitors can sign up online), thanks to the popularity of the ski area and the stewardship of Rabbi Yudi Steiger of Park City’s Chabad.

Despite the myriad challenges, Allaham says the restaurant has been a financial success. And though Masliah has his hands full at night in the dining room, he still has found time to “moonlight”: During the day, he’s a ski instructor on the mountain.

SIDEBAR: A Jewish skier’s picks: Prayer, kosher food and divine snow

By Uriel Heilman

Jewish skiers now can find American mountains that serve kosher food, offer daily prayers and let you ski into a Kabbalat Shabbat service. Based on this reporter’s legwork, here are some destinations that Jews should consider checking out — even if just for the divine snow.Whenever possible: Ski Utah.

Park City: After Vail Resorts bought Park City Mountain Resort and linked it to Canyons over the summer, the newly renamed Park City Mountain became America’s largest ski area, with 7,300 acres of terrain. Fortunately, there are 41 lifts (including one to zip you from the parking lot to the base area and one from the middle of town) and more than 300 trails to help you get to around.

Combine that with the 400 inches of snow that falls in Park City every year and that’s a lot of white stuff to bust up. The powder is practically everywhere you turn: In the groves of aspens that hold fluffy snow up to several days after a storm, between the scented pines in the mountain’s shadowed canyons and in mogul piles on the advanced trails.

Fortunately, there are 41 lifts (including one to zip you from the parking lot to the base area and one from the middle of town) and more than 300 trails to help you get in as many turns as possible.

Park City also has the nation’s only slope-side kosher restaurant, Prime at Canyons, and most days, there’s a daily Orthodox minyan prayer service next door.

Deer Valley: Cushy, well-groomed and ritzy, the mountain is home to America’s only ski-in, ski-out weekly Kabbalat Shabbat service, held every Friday afternoon. You’ve never been so elevated.

Snowbasin: If you’re looking for something off the well-trod tourist path, try this local secret — one of about 10 large ski areas within an hour’s drive of Salt Lake City (and not to be confused with the better-known Snowbird ski resort). Because there are no hotels near Snowbasin (the closest ones are in Ogden, 17 miles away), it’s almost never crowded.

The skiing there is superlative — it was the site of the downhill, combined and super-G races in the 2002 Winter Olympics — and just three lifts give you access to practically all of the mountain’s 3,000 calf-straining acres. For the experts, there’s also backcountry terrain. Just watch where you go. One wrong turn atop Allen Peak (elevation 9,465), and you’ll be headed all the way down to Ogden, at the bottom of the valley.

Otherwise, there’s plenty to ski back East, where most of America’s Jews live.

Okemo Mountain Resort: There’s no getting around it. Skiing in the Northeast can be c-o-l-d. Nevertheless, when southern Vermont’s Okemo Mountain Resort opened North America’s first heated bubble lift in 2014, many hard-core skiers derided it as a lift for sissies. Then came the polar vortex, and they quickly got on board. Now, the resort has two bubble chairlifts, which both shield skiers from the biting New England winds and offer heated cushions for tush-warming.

Of course, no one comes to Okemo for the heat (there’s Miami Beach for that). The mountain is known for its groomed runs, relative proximity to New York (four hours by car) and kid-friendly amenities. For the little ones, there’s a slope-side tubing park, six magic carpet lifts and a 3,100-foot-long mountain coaster. For older kids, there are seven terrain parks and the longest halfpipe in the East: 18 feet high and 500 feet long. If you’re there for the skiing, Okemo is a well-suited to intermediates and beginners.

Mount Snow: If you’re looking for something a little more challenging, Mount Snow in southern Vermont has some pretty gnarly terrain, especially if you’re willing to brave the trees of the North Face. This reporter spent a good portion of his visit in those woods, schussing quietly through untouched snow, and only rarely screaming in primal fear while desperately maneuvering to avoid hitting a tree.

For something less hair-raising, try Mount Snow’s Main Face, which is loaded with intermediate trails and has great views of the valley below, weather permitting. Unless you’re a snowboarder, avoid the Corinthia section of the mountain. It’s all terrain parks.

Gore Mountain: Most New Yorkers who take ski vacations in the East mechanically head for Vermont or New Hampshire. But here’s why you should consider Gore Mountain, in North Creek, New York: Though little-known, it’s actually the Empire State’s largest ski area (439 acres), has a respectable vertical drop (2,537 feet from peak to base) and is almost never crowded.

Gore is run by a New York state agency, the Olympic Regional Development Authority, so it’s much less commercial than most ski areas. The base area harkens back to a bygone time before ski mountains became appendages for fancy hotels and ritzy shops. And because there’s very little lodging nearby, Gore hasn’t become a destination resort.

The downside is Gore is under-developed. The lifts tend to be slow, and you’ll probably have to sleep at least 30 minutes away – unless you snag one of the dozen or so rooms at the quaint Gore Mountain Lodge a couple of miles down the road.

The mountain itself is a lot of fun, with some scary-steep slopes on top and some beautiful, windy tree trails mid-mountain. If you time your visit right, you can even ski in the trees. Unfortunately, as of mid-February that would require the incredible feat of skiing on dirt. Pray for snow!