Feeding hungry guests after a long day of ranch work is no small task, but Chase Kelley is no stranger to the challenge. For three years Chase has spearheaded the culinary team at the Zapata Ranch, providing an on-site, upscale dining experience to match the ranch’s western experience. Along with his new assistant, Texas barbecue protege Dylan Taylor, Chase blends his team’s wide-ranging culinary backgrounds in the 150+ year old Zapata Lodge by bringing the open range to the table. Using local produce and meats, including bison from the ranch’s herd, the two craft an unforgettable and uncommon take on traditional comfort foods with a modern twist that impresses foodies from New York to Los Angeles.
Chase grew up with a culinary interest stemming from large family gatherings as a kid. After 15 years in the restaurant business, he understands the industry from “the front to the back of the house,” and a stint at La Familia in Los Angeles taught him to think outside the box. The renowned brunch spot blended French and Mexican cuisines into an eclectic mix “that didn’t make any sense, but the food was amazing and extremely popular,”. The smaller scale operation consistently saw lines out the door, instilling in Chase the need for a well-rounded, dynamic role that still surfaces as he caters to the guests at Zapata. He loves the culinary world for the sense of community fostered while sharing a meal and the mix of people that come together around his table. The melting pot of cultures, goals, and ambitions form the soup stock of his world, not unlike the simmering bison pho created within the Lodge walls. On his days off, he relaxes on the ranch or at his cabin, often heading to the Medano to observe the nearly thousands of bison roaming the landscape. His choice for a last meal is that of a culinary adventurer: a “specific street cart pozole stand in Oaxaca that I went to four times a week when I was there, with a really hot fermented hot sauce.” Before Covid, Chase rambled the small quirky towns in the valley surrounding Zapata, savoring the local cuisines along the way. An exploratory personality ignites his investigative kitchen philosophy enjoyed by guests daily.
Dylan Taylor, who joined the Zapata culinary team this year, graduated high school in Texas and moved to Austin, where he fell in love with quintessential central Texas-style barbecue. Before his time at Ranchlands, he and his friends opened Goldee’s Barbecue in Fort Worth, not far from one of the largest livestock shipping operations in the Old West. His approach to meat is equal parts historian and mad scientist, citing the thermodynamics and heat transfer of a well crafted home-built smoker while paying homage to the grassroots beginnings of barbecue, when “people preserved the less desirable cuts of beef before refrigeration was commercialized. The German and Czech immigrants of the region spent Sundays selling the precursors to what we know today, often out of a roadside stand or back door of a butcher shop.” The “no frills” beginnings of barbecue in rural environments laid the groundwork for the highly regionalized cuisine loved by so many today: “Specific styles evolved alongside locally available hardwoods. Eastern barbecue featured hickory and pecan while the more western style used mesquites and oaks. Pork’s prevalence in the east gave way to beef once west of the Mississippi, where old Spanish cattle was more common.” He humbly and happily lives the blue collar aspect of barbecuing. He rolled up his sleeves and spent nearly six months crafting his flagship smoker, measuring, cutting, and welding it together himself. Food aside, Dylan loves barbecue culture. Solidified as the “lowest cost of entry” as far as the food industry goes, those involved happily and openly share ideas and techniques, often in the form of backyard brainstorming sessions. The friendship fostered within the barbecue circuit rarely surfaces in other disciplines of the culinary world. It brings people together, both around the smoker and at a place at the table.
Dylan’s insatiably curious mind led him to Ranchlands. With a need to “understand more about living sustainably and truly know where food comes from,” he found himself north of the Red River, the trees no longer mesquite or pecan, but instead cottonwood and ponderosa pine. The ranching environment changed, too; instead of the Angus, Hereford, or Brahman herds traditionally run in the Lone Star state, the cattle management philosophy a more “hands off” method and focuses on a regenerative approach. His highly romanticized view of ranching lends itself to this less extractive process where cattle and nature coincide on the open range. It manifests in his culinary approach as well, as he often uses an open-fire Argentine grill with wood from the ranch and spices grown in his front yard. Very few places source local ingredients to such a molecular level, quite literally from the ground up. When Dylan finds time away from the Lodge, he fully immerses himself in learning horsemanship. He draws parallels between moving cattle and barbecue: “you can be as scientific or as nerdy about it as you want and rely on your senses…I think it’s good to have a balance of both because the science behind it helps you grasp what’s happening in the smoker, but it’s also important to rely on your instincts because there are constant variables. Changes in wind and humidity happen every day. The meat comes in differently because each animal is different, like a thumbprint. Same thing with wood, it has a different moisture content every day…Sometimes it’s perfect, sometimes it’s a little green…it’s a lot like a cattle drive….you can do everything perfectly and try your hardest and something will still go wrong.. It’s just the nature and the beauty of the beast. It keeps things interesting.” Only a select group of people on the planet understand barbecue to such a cellular extent like Dylan Taylor, but even fewer get in the saddle and move the beef themselves.
Creating the culinary experience at a guest ranch proves different than that of a restaurant environment, but it plays directly into Chase’s and Dylan’s passions. They interact with Zapata’s guests much more directly than their restaurant patrons in previous work, even presenting the food themselves. Their menu stays very dynamic out of a matter of necessity, Chase explained: “It’s more challenging than a restaurant scenario, where people seek out a specific restaurant for their food. It’s up to me to construct the menu that guests will enjoy over the course of their whole stay.” With dishes like bison tenderloin, wild caught trout from the Arkansas River just a few miles away, and herb roasted carrots from local farmers cooked over wood grown on the property, it provides a more organic encounter to cuisine seldom displayed elsewhere. While the spirit of the West reveals itself in the ingredients, Chase and Dylan’s creations display much more imagination than traditional frontier food. One of Dylan’s favorite dishes to prepare comes in the form of their spin on Kofta, a traditionally Asian and Middle Eastern meatball. They’ve substituted ground beef or lamb with bison seared over a high-temperature cottonwood fire, finished with tzatziki sauce complete with fresh-picked dill. Their talents expand well outside of dinner offerings. Each morning begins with breakfast made-to-order. Chase’s French toast steals the show, a beautiful golden crusted and powdered-sugar classic resembling sunrise over the snow-dusted Sangre de Christo mountain range flanking the lodge to the east. Lunch follows suit, often sent with guests on their adventures, secured in saddle bags and enjoyed at the most serene picnic locations imaginable. It’s clear Chase and Dylan possess very different styles and backgrounds in the kitchen, but their affinity to explore different flavors and pairings provide a truly unforgettable experience to those seated at their table.