Diesel Beef and other Delicacies
By John Gallup
Special to the Glacier City Gazette
This article was originally published in the Local News April 1993.
Alyeska Resort in the late 1970’s was home to many culinary experiments. As the nation sought its gastronomical rudder, so did we. The result was food that was considered “varied” and “uneven” by our customers. This situation was not helped by the fact that the kitchen in the Nugget Inn was a very difficult one to work and make profitable, so we had pretty much a whole new food service staff every fall. The task of finding yet another chef fell to our general manager Chris Von Imhof.
Of all the colorful characters that Chris put to work in a chef’s hat, none was more interesting than Hans. Hans was Swiss, but had adopted the dress and mannerisms of an old west cowboy but with a Swiss accent. He was fond of reminding us that he was one of only two “registered chefs” in Alaska, and that he was one tough hombre to boot. No girly man was he.
Hans determined early on that we needed a barbecue. Not just any barbecue – one that could cook a whole quarter of beef on a rotating spit. The job of designing this contraption fell to our Mountain Manager Larry Daniels.
Whenever you build something for the first time, your tendency is to put a little extra material in it “for the safety factor.” It’s better that your barbecue be a little on the heavy side than your spit fall down into the fire a half an hour before lunchtime.
The biggest design challenge was firebox. After a thorough search around the boneyard, we settled on an old storage tank, which was about the right size, we thought, and cut in half lengthwise. It looked a little big, but we had never seen a quarter of beef, and besides, Hans might decide tomorrow that he wanted to cook a whole cow, in which case we would be OK size wise.
The steel arrived for the base and the spit mechanism, and the thing began to take shape. As I watched our mechanic Lee Pfeifer weld the thing together, I was amazed at the amount of steel that was needed to fabricate a barbecue that would do all of the things that Hans wanted it to do. More steel was brought in, and in about a week the thing was ready to try out. And none too soon – Spring Carnival was only 2 days away.
We found out a couple of things towing the barbecue up to the resort: 1) it was really heavy, and 2) once on a slope, it was very tippy. After some white knuckles and bruised knuckles we got it shoved onto a little platform made of snow on the uphill side of the Sitzmark, far enough away that it wouldn’t set the building on fire if things got away from us.
On Saturday morning as the throngs arrived, it was time to start barbecuing! We poured a couple of 50 lb. bags of briquettes into the firebox, and came up against the realization of our first design flaw: Those briquettes made two little pathetic piles in the maw of this huge barbecue. Some quick mental math told us that we would need an additional 300 lbs. of briquettes to make the thing cook effectively, and we had counted on what we had already poured in to last us both days. Hans was wrestling the beef quarter on to the spit, and told us to go cut down a tree to burn in the barbecue.
Well, finding a tree was not a problem. Finding one that had a prayer of burning on short notice was a different matter. We finally cut down the closest one, about a 10” hemlock, bucked it up into about 6’ lengths (about right for the firebox) and dragged the pieces over to the barbecue with a snow cat.
Hans and 4 or 5 others had already mounted the huge clod of flesh and lit the briquettes, which began glowing weakly in the spring sun. Hans had us throw on the logs. The immediate effect of this was to put what fire there was out, and now lunch was only about an hour away. The effect of these setbacks raised Hans’ personality to near ballistic level.
So I decided that they had enough help and retreated to the parking lot to help the arriving hordes get parked.
As I smiled and pointed in the parking lot, I heard a “whump” and turned to see a large black cloud rise up over the Sitzmark, yellow flames close at its heels. Seems that Hans became impatient with the progress of the fire, and added a little Union Oil Boy Scout to the mix and threw in a match. Later observations of his eyebrows confirmed this.
A couple more diesel doses got the logs going good and lent the sought-after “charred look” to the beef. Now, our second design flaw emerged. The thing had gone from being too cool to being too hot, and not only could not be approached by anyone, but began its own “China Syndrome” descent into the snowpack, a sinking funeral pyre for this poor cow quarter.
I was back up there by then, and we threw water at it from as close as we dared get until we could get up to it and get some cribbing under the skids to slow the meltdown. Red Adair would have been proud. Hans was finally able to modulate the cooking heat through judicious application of accelerant and water, and we directed our attention to running the rest of the Spring Carnival festivities.
And I’ll be damned if Hans didn’t sell every last scrap of that haunch.
The “cooking behemoth” never saw much action after that – we would have had to denude the valley to fuel it. As the years went by one could find recognizable pieces of it built into other contraptions, such as mogul cutters and compactor bars.
However, like all prototypes, it was a great learning experience!
Nota Bene 6/5/17
The modern reader may need a little additional explanation.
1) The shop where we built the barbecue was located where the soccer field is today. All of our equipment, snow cats, dozers, etcetera, had to travel down four blocks of subdivision roads for service. On busy weekends, people would park both sides of Alyeska Ave. and we would get cut off from the shop and had to work on snowcats wherever we could finds a place.
2) Red Adair was a famous oil field firefighter who was called to put out the toughest fires. His last job was putting out the hundreds of oil well fires which the Iraqi army set in Kuwait upon their retreat in 1991.
3) In those days we built just about everything we needed ourselves. The mistakes especially were true learning experiences. By 1993, when this was originally published, Chris Von Imhof was managing the Maui Prince hotel, Larry Daniels was project manager on the Alyeska Prince Hotel (now the Hotel Alyeska), Lee Pfeifer was working on Harley Davidsons in Anchorage, and I was teaching Science to 8th graders at Clark Middle School. Hans disappeared with the snow in the spring.