Yosemite National Park, Calif. -- My brother-in-law had an offer we couldn't refuse: two nights at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel in the heart of this stunning park, where we'd be wined and dined by some of the finest chefs from the San Francisco area.
He'd won the two nights for two couples at the luxury AAA four-diamond hotel in a charity auction and invited my husband and me along.
But one detail gave us pause: The dates were for early January.
It turns out that winter is a fine time to visit this 1,200-square-mile park set amid the soaring cliffs and granite domes of the Sierra Nevadas. As the country's third most-visited national park, Yosemite typically draws nearly 4 million visitors a year, with Disney-like throngs descending upon the valley each summer.
Crowds don't come in the winter. Few cars are on the roads, and hiking trails are quiet, lightly traveled and pristine. Temperatures during our stay were even slightly warmer than those at the time in Pittsburgh.
"Each season has its pluses, and a lot of people come to Yosemite in winter for the scenery," said Lisa Cesaro, public relations manager for the park. "You see a lot of photographers."
In addition, lodging is more affordable, and with fewer people in the park, it's easier to navigate, she said. "I live in the valley and I love the winter."
This is the 28th year for Chefs' Holiday at The Ahwahnee, which is held a month each winter to bring people to Yosemite Valley during lean tourism months. The hotel hosts eight sessions of two- or three-night events attended by 100 to 240 guests to see cooking demonstrations and partake in a gala dinner. Beyond the San Francisco area, chefs hail from New York City, Los Angeles, Reno, Nev., and other places across the country. Participating guests stay at either The Ahwahnee or Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, also in the valley.
Yosemite was the favorite national park of Stephen T. Mather, the first director of the National Park Service that was created in 1916, according to "The Ahwahnee: Yosemite's Grand Hotel" by Keith S. Walket. Embarking on an aggressive campaign to increase funding of the parks, he pushed to build a first-class hotel that would bring people of influence and money year-round to Yosemite at a time when the automobile was revolutionizing travel.
The hotel was called The Ahwahnee, the name given to the valley by its native people, which meant "land of the gaping mouth."
The stair-stepped design of the 99-room, 150,000-square-foot main lodge mirrors the 3,000-foot granite cliffs that serve as its backdrop. The architect was Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who had designed lodges in Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks. Although the facade of The Ahwahnee looks like it's built of redwood trees, it's actually made of steel, granite and concrete to reduce fire risk. The granite and concrete are stained to look like redwood.
Getting building materials -- 1,000 tons of structural steel, 5,000 tons of stone, 30,000 board feet of timber and $25,000 worth of kitchen equipment -- to Yosemite Valley on primitive roads was no easy feat. The contractor promised the hotel could be built "for a maximum guaranteed cost of $545,000," but it opened on July 16, 1927, at a cost of more than double that -- $1.25 million, Mr. Walket wrote.
Eighty-six years later, The Ahwahnee still stands as the finest hotel in the national park system. Inside, the decor blends Art Deco, Native American, Middle Eastern and Craftsman influences. Visitors can see these in the earthy colors, stenciling and inlaid mosaics that are derived from California Native American basket designs, rich tapestries, woodwork, lighting fixtures and Persian rugs.
Beyond its giant stone fireplaces and wide public spaces, the hotel's focal point is the grand dining room -- nearly half a football field in length -- erected with 34-foot ceilings that are supported by massive stone pillars and peeled sugar pine columns. Tall windows present spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and towering pines.
Fine dining is a rich tradition at The Ahwahnee. A staff of up to 60 prepares everything, including breads and pastries, in its 6,500-square-foot kitchen, where food was once chilled by huge blocks of ice cut from the park's Mirror Lake. During a peak day, 2,000 meals may be served, using 25,000 single pieces of china, said Percy Whatley, The Ahwahnee's executive chef since 2005. Staff also prepares the food for 130 weddings a year at the hotel.
The National Park Service has renovated parts of the hotel over the years, with the most recent project a couple of years ago to update the fire and safety systems and guest rooms. It took this opportunity to rectify some earlier changes that had strayed from the original design. The hotel reopened in March 2011 after a $12 million renovation that returned it to what Smithsonian magazine describes as "woodsy elegance."
Designers researched Yosemite's archives to select textiles, colors and accessories that complemented those used in the hotel until 1942. Historic furnishings also were brought in for its public spaces, Ms. Cesaro said.
She said the parks service plans to update the armoires and beds in the guest rooms, but that project has not been scheduled.
"Cooking is malleable," said Mark Sullivan, executive chef and partner of Spruce in San Francisco's Presidio Heights. "It's always changing. I like to teach people to see how that works."
That's often the case when working with a recipe from a star chef, or from any chef for that matter. They often veer off the blueprint with alternative ingredients to add more spice or fuller flavor, or just to use what's in season.
Mr. Sullivan was the first up in two days of hourlong demonstrations in The Ahwahnee's Great Lounge that also featured Annie Somerville, executive chef of Greens in San Francisco's Fort Mason Center, and Ben "Wyatt" Dufresne, executive chef of PlumpJack Cafe of the Squaw Valley Inn near Lake Tahoe.
Before an audience of about 100, Mr. Sullivan prepared Spruce's popular winter side dish, Citrus and Brassica Salad. Although his official recipe calls for Meyer lemons and oranges, he used oranges and a pomelo, a large citrus fruit native to Southeast Asia, similar to a grapefruit but sweeter. The recipe's buttermilk dressing calls for Banyuls vinegar (from southern France), but any vinegar will do, he said, champagne, red wine or others.
Home cooks need to use their common sense and creativity, he said, especially for ingredients that might be plentiful near California's Central Valley but not so much in their hometowns.
With the help of Spruce's chef de cuisine, John Madriaga, Mr. Sullivan also prepared Butter-Poached Maine Lobster, a favorite at the restaurant. "It's one dish I can't take off the menu because the public loves it," he said.
Mr. Madriaga held up a live lobster, its claws wiggling before the crowd. He said there are two ways to kill a lobster before cooking: dip its head in boiling water or put a knife through the back of its head. He then proceeded to twist off the tail -- causing a surprised gasp from the audience -- which also apparently killed it instantly.
Later in the day, Ms. Somerville held to her mantra of "chaos in the kitchen" by preparing two salads, a main dish and several sauces -- jumping back and forth among them-- in an hour and a half. The audience seemed most interested in how she roasted a large poblano pepper over the gas flame with a nifty round stovetop grill.
Chefs' Holiday was capped by a gala dinner in the grand dining room that featured four paired wines, Mr. Sullivan's butter-poached lobster with ricotta gnudi and braised gem lettuces, grilled quail, rich desserts and other tasty treats.
And after eating nonstop for two days, it was good to know there'd be no crowds to fight when I wanted to work off those calories on Yosemite's hiking trails.
Virginia Linn: 412-263-1662; firstname.lastname@example.org First Published January 27, 2013 5:00 AM