Chef Lenny McNab: Best Cook in the West
October 21, 2013
The first time I met Lenny I stumbled into his kitchen, exhausted from a long day of traveling. Steam was rolling from a pan filled with simmering wild meat. Warm light poured out from behind the stainless-steel hood above the stove, shadowing a lineup of ingredients. It was like walking onto the set of a Food Network production, and Lenny was the star.
We locked eyes.
"Hey," he said. "Hey," I replied.
Then for about 10 gloriously awkward seconds we just stared at each other (very heterosexually), as I tried to wrap my collective consciousness around what appeared to be Conway Twitty's culinary incarnate — Lenny was rocking a crimson silk cowboy bandana, a studded golden belt buckle, and a thick-brimmed cowboy hat kicked up to trap the sweat.
"You want a beer?" Lenny eventually offered, as his eyes lit up like silver dollars at the chance to entertain yet another guest.
"Yep," I said. "How'd you know?"
"You look like that type of guy, and there's no better way to start the party," he said.
"Man, we're going to get along just fine," I replied, taking a gulp of the fancy Colorado-brewed IPA Lenny cracked open. Before I could take another swig, Lenny whipped out a plate of what would be the best turkey sandwich I'd ever eaten. (Lenny calls it "intuitive service": knowing what the guests want before they want it.)
The first bite, married with that IPA, was so good I started to get emotional'¦pretty damn emotional. It was weird, I thought, to have this strong affection for a guy I just met'¦especially one dressed for a professional line dancing competition. But food, beer, and the smell of wild meat could melt even the manliest man's heart.
And so it goes for chef and burgeoning country star Leonard McNab. Every single person who walks into his kitchen at Kessler Canyon's five-star resort and hunting lodge is immediately a friend...and eventually a fan.
Simply put, Lenny is like the bearded lovechild of Martha Stewart and Johnny Cash. There are no casual encounters with this former cowboy cook; to meet him (and to know him) is an event.
Chef Lenny's more than 20 years of culinary experience has taken him all over the world. He started at age 13 and within three years was cooking up meals for the likes of then President George H. W. Bush. The New Hampshire native refined his culinary chops at school in Bad Kissingen, Germany, and later made his name as one of the last authentic chuck wagon cooks on the ORO Cattle Ranch in Prescott, Ariz. The old cowboys called him "Cooky," and as if out of some old Western flick, he served them beans, bread, and meat, slapped together on the wooden planks of a chuck wagon (or in a Dutch oven).
His culinary journey pre-Kessler was a best-of-both worlds mix of five-star training and hard-earned grit.
"I loved every minute of working with those cowboys," Lenny said. "The dang job was more fun than you could ever imagine, and I found out all the things school could never have taught me. Hearty flavors were a man's best friend on the cattle trail, but now here I am putting that all together for my friends [at Kessler Canyon]."
Before I met Lenny I had never tasted bacon whipped cream. I had never had the pleasure of eating fresh mountain lion rolls, coffee-crusted elk steak, or Dutch oven cowboy beans. In the romantically lit, spare-no-expense dining hall at Kessler, I experienced each one and was never disappointed — not one time. The man can create flavors with brightness and can tell you a tale about each dish that makes you all the more excited to take the first bite. His passion for good food shows'¦especially wild game.
"We all go to the store and buy steaks and the nicest cuts of meat, but we don't always fully appreciate what an animal can provide," Lenny said. "So eat your innards from your elk. Eat your tongues and your livers and your hearts and use those bones to cook with. These are very important aspects to get the full spectrum of the animal you've hunted."
Kessler's 23,000-acre property just outside of DeBeque, Colo., offers prime elk, black bear, and mule deer country, featuring rolling sage-covered hills, groves of aspen trees, and water holes. The meat provided by hunters gets combined with whatever happens to be growing in Lenny's garden to create one of those aforementioned meals.
"Some of the most memorable meals here have been meals with meat taken from the mesa," he said. "Whether it's venison or elk or mountain lion or some of the birds from the upland hunting — combined with lettuce and tomatoes from my garden.
"When you pull out a full meal that is made up of all the things that were either grown or hunted by you and the people around you, there's a real big sense of accomplishment and joy and pride. When you go to sleep at night, it just seems to be a little sweeter."
Somewhere in between when he left the chuck wagon for good and when he walked through the door at Kessler (Lenny's life is full of all sorts of twists and turns; he worked as a mule wrangler at the Grand Canyon, too), McNab ended up living in Nashville, Tenn. He didn't own a home or an apartment or any normal dwelling. He cowboy'd up and lived out of his truck, playing Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and David Alan Coe tunes on the street for change and in bars when he could.
It was during those tough times that Lenny refined his legendary country-crooning alter ego, a salt of the earth guitarist named "The Black Mamba." Lenny plays the split-personality game with The Black Mamba, never truly acknowledging that they were both born of the same mind. It's all part of the entertainment.
"The Black Mamba does a honky tonk variety show every night," Lenny/Mamba said. "He dances, plays guitar, and does some intimate cowboy poetry. When that man dons the rhinestone jacket and the smell of whiskey and Tag body spray fills the room, you know you're in for tears, laughter, and a sweet musical interlude like no other."
Each night after Chef Lenny has dished out the dessert, The Black Mamba saunters up to the stage wearing that black jacket littered with rhinestones. After the last note slides off his guitar, each guest has had the full Lenny experience'¦food, music, and friendship.
All are left with this question: Who is Lenny McNab? I can tell you one thing: He's the best damn wild game cook west of the Mississippi. His tale is strangely poetic, and he's a can't-miss good time. So, if you're ever around DeBeque, swing by and visit my friend Lenny. The scenery, the entertainment, and the fine menu are just the beginning.
"And if there's any ladies out there that want to move to Colorado," he said, "I am single."