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Dining Out

Ahwahnee Hotel Kitchen (Yosemite, California)

by Michael Chu
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Yosemite National Park has often been called a photographer's paradise, but many visitors venturing into the Valley are unaware of the world class Ahwahnee Hotel. The Ahwahnee is not only an elegant mix of history and nature, but also has some of the finest dining in California. This week, I had the opportunity to tour their kitchen and get an inside peek as the Ahwahnee staff rushed to prepare for the Chef's Holiday Gala Dinner.

The Ahwahnee Hotel was completed in 1927 (to the tune of $1.5 million) to provide accommodations in Yosemite National Park fitting for visiting dignitaries who didn't want to "rough it". The Ahwahnee was not the first hotel constructed in Yosemite with this in mind, but it was the first designed to last. It is almost completely constructed of stone, concrete, and steel so that it would not meet the same doom as previous hotels in Yosemite - fire. The exterior facade of the Ahwahnee is constructed of poured concrete shaped and stained to resemble redwood. The only large wood construction in the hotel is the dining room which comfortably sits over three hundred.

If you're wondering about the name: The Ahwahnee name comes from the language of the Miwok Indians who lived in Yosemite Valley. They called the Valley "Ahwahnee" which many people agree means "Gaping Mouth" (although there is some disagreement about this). The Miwoks residing in Yosemite called themselves the Ahwahneechee while Miwoks residing in the Mariposa region to the south referred to them as the "Yehemite" meaning "some among them are killers". This word was most likely corrupted into the English name "Yosemite".

Throughout the month of January, the Ahwahnee Hotel features talks and demonstrations from guest chefs. The demonstrations are free on a first come, first serve basis while dining at the Gala dinner is $140 per person. Lucky for me, Tina and I happened to be vacationing in Yosemite. We decided to attend a demonstration by Josh Silvers (owner and chef of Syrah Bistro in Sonoma County, California) entitled "Romantic Dinner for Two" highlighting a New York steak, Clam Chowder, and Raspberry Chocolate Torte. Josh kept the room entertained and engaged throughout his demonstration and provided everyone a taste of the dessert.

The next day, we toured the Ahwahnee Hotel kitchen with one of the sous chefs as our guide. It was explained to us that, just recently, the Ahwahnee kitchen had it's ventilation system upgraded. Prior to the $1.5 million (yep, the upgrade cost as much as the hotel's original price tag, ignoring inflation of course) upgrade, the kitchen temperatures would fluctuate from over 100&176;F (38&176;C) in the summer to below freezing in the winter. Now the kitchens are kept at an even 65 to 70°F. In the photograph below you can see the extremely high ceilings of the kitchen. The original architectural design intended for the hot air to have enough room to rise above the busy kitchen. The windows at the top were the only ventilation, allowing hot air to escape and cold air to be let in. Now that air conditioning has been installed, the temperature is no longer a problem, but it does create a great deal of noise.

One man handles all the room service at the Ahwahnee, whose 123 rooms aren't all inside the main building but include cottages as well. Later, when we saw this man rushing outside with a tray, we knew someone had called room service for lunch in one of the cottages.

The refrigeration room held several refrigerator chambers side by side (I counted four from where I stood, but was told there were more). The chambers were designed to allow air circulation between each one to promote even cooling. Prior to the availability of condenser units, at the beginning of each winter, the hotel staff would go out to Mirror Lake (about 1.5 miles away) and cut 500 pound (225 kg) blocks of ice from the frozen lake. These blocks would be hauled back to the hotel and stored under straw and sawdust. When the refrigerators needed "refilling", the blocks were lifted by a winch and slid into these doorways situated above each chamber. Each of these doorways led to compartments big enough for ten 500-pound blocks of ice.

The ice is no longer used and condensers take their place, but one of the original refrigerator doors is still in use. (The others have been replaced with modern insulated doors.) This door is most likely filled with sawdust for insulation and in the photo below, it's easy to see just how thick the door is.

All the bread in the hotel is prepared in the only remaining original oven. The oven, getting close to eighty years old, is (according to the head baker) the most accurate and precise oven in the facility and beats all the new convection and conventional ovens. However, a sign hanging on the oven asks politely that you "Never Turn Off This Oven". The baker says it takes anywhere from four to six hours for the oven to heat up, so they don't turn it off. When asked if the heating elements will ever wear out through the constant use, the baker responded after a pause: "I don't think they'll wear out."

The pastry chef at the Ahwahnee is excellent, but she often finds that many people want to bring in their own cakes for weddings (which the Ahwahnee hosts about 300 per year). More often than not, these wedding cakes have fallen over or been crushed while been brought up to Yosemite over winding and bumpy roads. Sometimes, the cakes can be fixed, but other times the pastry department goes into overdrive to create a brand new cake. Should have ordered the cake from the Ahwahnee in the first place... Below, an assistant prepares pastry dough for the evenings countless pies.

That afternoon, the kitchen was in full swing preparing for the evening's special dinner. The following series of photographs show what little I was able to capture during my tour:

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Written by Michael Chu
Published on January 22, 2005 at 01:33 AM
11 comments on Ahwahnee Hotel Kitchen (Yosemite, California):(Post a comment)

On March 08, 2006 at 08:08 PM, Paul W. (guest) said...

congrats on your nomination for best food blog!

On March 08, 2006 at 08:08 PM, an anonymous reader said...
I worked as a dishwasher in that kitchen in 1970 and it was delightful to see that the place still looked the same, including the monster dishwashing machine we called "Fury."

Most of the other employees were recently returned Vietnam vets who were self-medicating with various hallucinogens. Ah, the days cleaning up after Sunday brunch (and a 300-seat dining room) when peaking on mescaline.

The place was still being run by an outfit called "The Curry Company" (before the gangsters at MCA took over the franchise and whoever has it now), and though we were only being paid $1/hour (plus room and board), the employee meals were consistently the best I've ever eaten in my life.

What a treat seeing that great kitchen again.

On March 08, 2006 at 08:08 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Sorry, but the Ahwahnees were NOT Miwoks and Yosemite does not mean "Some of them were Killers".

I know that is a shock to those who work at the Ahwahnee, but it's true.

Chief Tenaya was the founder of the "Pai-Ute Colony" of Ahwahni and he spoke a "Piute Jargon". He was born at Mono Lake and there is no proof that the Ahwahnees were Miwuks.

Also Yosemite just means "The Killers" and not "Some of them were Killers". The word Yosemite was termed by Miwuks who were frightened of the Yosemites.

Here are the real Ahwahnees above.

The name Ahwahni was part of a creation story.

On June 24, 2006 at 03:15 PM, Ahwahnee Diner (guest) said...
Subject: Ahwahnee Dining Experience Not So Good
We had lunch there last summer, and although the main dining room and views are impressive, the food and service unfortunately were not. We had a reservation and still had to wait 55 minutes, were seated next to the kitchen doors (smelly, loud, and just yucky), and it took forever for anyone to notice us sitting there. Rarely did anyone ever come to our table. I had to go get my own water because after 25 minutes after being given our menus I was thirsty and we couldn't flag down a waiter. Our meat was way overcooked (dry) and I ordered medium-rare. No one ever checked how our meals were. Our salads were drenched in dressing, and our desserts were okay, nothing special. I recall finding a small bug in my salad. I think the bread was good though. We are friendly, easy going people, so when we did get a young colleg-age waiter to our table I just asked what was going on at this place. I said it had been so highly recommended (but mostly for the room/experience).. He said most of the people in the dining room (waiters/busboys) did not like working there. I found his honesty very surprising, but kind of explained the overall experience we had. If the Chef isn't happy, I'm sure that trickles down to the busboys' experience on the job, and that all shows up on the plate and in the experience of the diner. Well we'll go back to Yosemite, but not the Ahwahnee dining room unfortunately, unless they go through some kind of transformation.

On November 14, 2006 at 02:49 PM, recent visitor of Yosemit (guest) said...
I also heared that the food and service there isnt the best. By I prefered my own food in camp4 anyway ;)

The Hotel should be burned. Thers to much infrastructer in the Valley.

PS: I met an old men working as a cleaner or wahever at the Hotel entrance and he didnt seem to be so unhappy about his job, though he was a very nice person. Thats my only own experience about the hotel.

On November 15, 2006 at 08:45 AM, GaryProtein said...
recent visitor of Yosemit wrote:
I also heared that the food and service there isnt the best. By I prefered my own food in camp4 anyway ;)

The Hotel should be burned. Thers to much infrastructer in the Valley.

PS: I met an old men working as a cleaner or wahever at the Hotel entrance and he didnt seem to be so unhappy about his job, though he was a very nice person. Thats my only own experience about the hotel.

I think your experience is summed up in your first sentence. You HAVE NO experience with the hotel's restaurant. I can't say anything about your meeting with a member of their custodial staff because I wasn't there. Did you ever stay at the hotel, or were you just wishing you did?

Having been there twice, I can say it was a wonderful experience.

On May 01, 2007 at 08:58 PM, (guest) said...
Subject: picture of dining room in hotel
Hi I am writing curriculum for a Hospitality and Tourism course in High School. I would like to use the picture of the dining room in this document. Please can you let me know if this will be permitted.
This is the name of the photo ( Dining room inside the Ahwanhnee (the fancy hotel) Photos by Joshua Uziel

Thanks Jean tansley

On May 01, 2007 at 10:20 PM, GaryProtein said...
Based on my experience in academics (I am a clinical associate professor), if you are a student writing a curriculum as a type of research paper or project, you shouldn't have any problem at all. Just reference it like any other source. If you are a teacher making a curriculum to be taught, you probably won't have any problem either as long as you credit the Ahwahnee and don't use it to make a profit. If you are using their dining room in a context where you earn a profit or if it being published, you most likely need their permission.

On February 17, 2010 at 09:19 PM, Bergum Family (guest) said...
Subject: Sunday Brunch at the Ahwananee Hotel in Yosemite
One of the highlights of camping in Yosemite is a time my boys and I cherish, enjoying Sunday Brunch at the Ahwahnee Hotel just before leaving Yosemite Valley to begin the long drive home. Sitting in the magnificant dining hall being served by accomplished servers while enjoying delicious made to order omlets and a buffet fit for a king, as you look out huge floor to ceiling picture windows at granite cliffs and landscaping that can only be described as heaven. Then when you thought nothing could be finer, a chef comes out and while the pianist plays he sings "What A Wonderful Life" with a voice just like Louis Armstrong, at that point I just knew I had died and gone to heaven. At any time of any day I can close my eyes and put myself into that moment which fills my eyes with tears of longing to be in that dining hall experiencing everything again!

On January 17, 2013 at 11:22 AM, ktmac (guest) said...
Subject: comes and goes
I too worked at the Awahnee Hotel Dining Room a few summers and I've also eaten there many times. The food quality sometimes depended on who was working that day and some people liked their job and some didn't, although the dining room was considered a plum job because of the gratuities and people had to have seniority to get on staff.

I worked both wait staff and as a sommelier. It was a tremendous experience. And yes I remember the FURY although I thought that was the name of the man who ran the dishwasher.

One summer we had bear cubs wander in because the doors were open. The tourists ran toward the cubs. The staff had more sense because baby bears mean mama bears and ran for the back.

I remember cleaning up after lunch and having several tour buses unload tourists from Japan and three of us trying to serve 100 people on the fly using our minimal Japanese that we had learned working there.

And I will never forget the man from New York who thought I filled his water glass too full and poured it on me instead of politely asking me to remove it and bring another to his liking. He was escorted out of the dining room.

I also remember afternoons doing wine tastings with the best and brightest from Napa Valley so we could accurately describe the wines to our guests.

And one day I even served photographer Ansel Adams.

On December 10, 2016 at 03:51 AM, an anonymous reader said...
Magnificent building, magnificent setting. You don't even need to stay or eat there; it is part of the National Park after all. You have to be able to drop $500 or more per night to stay there. But breakfast, if you can can make it super early, or if it's not too busy, while not exactly cheap can be had at a fair price for the experience. And tables next to the kitchen doors are not exactly pleasant. Anywhere. Best seats are the 'duces' situated next to the enormous 30ft tall windows, or any table on the 'windows'/south side of the dining hall.
There is, debatedly, nothing quite as pleasurable in this world as waking up in the campground, or the Valley 'ghetto'/shantytown of Housekeeping Camp, and walking over to the 'hotel' and stroll into that magnificent stone palace.
Remember, it's more about the place than it is the food. Usually the food is good, not great. Dinner is a whole 'nuther beast. It's when the gentry make their appearance and partake in 'fine dining' with all that it entails.
Give me breakfast, or even the hordes at Sunday brunch. Leave dinner and lodging to the 1%ers. If you are of such means, well count your blessings. If you've got a coupla hundred dollars to burn, dinner can be a very lovely experience. A coupla thou and have a nice coupla days and nights.

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