Disclosure: Framework Meetings and the State of Idaho sponsored my visit to Idaho. Opinions are my own.
I traveled to Couer d’Alene for From the Ashes Idaho, a BBQ event that featured top pitmasters from around the country.
The above picture is a sampling of what Chef Jason Dady was serving up – Certified Angus Beef® brand short ribs with Massaman curry, avocado and candied-peanut-smashed cucumbers.
I dined on amazing BBQ, sipped on blackberry lemon cider and drooled over hand-welded smoker masterpieces at Settlers Creek, a remote setting with unforgettable sunsets.
One of the most remarkable experiences was watching Chef Anthony DiBernardo of Swig & Swine demonstrate his craft. He built a smoker on site out of cinder blocks to roast two whole pigs and around 60 whole chickens.
What you’ll find when you visit Couer d’Alene, Idaho
Downtown Couer d’Alene reminded me of a mini Nashville. There are fun shops, trendy restaurants and a pub crawl bike tour.
Just up the road from all the excitement you can quickly walk to a natural getaway.
Along the waterfront of the beautiful Lake Couer d’Alene, there’s a large public park and a hiking trail with elevated lake views.
I was invited to the event to learn about Couer d’Alene and the state of Idaho, but in the end, I found that I learned more about myself.
As part of my visit to Idaho, I toured farms, orchards and restaurants, and the women along the way each inspired me to not only reach for my dreams, but to dream bigger.
From the Ashes, included a roundup of big, burly dudes who know their way behind the smoker – Anthony DiBernardo of Swig & Swine, Jean-Paul Bourgeois of Blue Smoke, Jason Dady of the Jason Dady Restaurant Group, Daryl Kunzi of Drummin’ Up BBQ and Brad Peugh of Bohica Smoke.
In the mix of all that stood the petite Laura Loomis. But don’t let her stature fool you. She is a badass pitmaster.
Laura, an Army brat from California moved around the world as a kid, eventually settling in San Antonio, Texas.
She started working part time at Two Bros. BBQ Market as a cashier, but it didn’t take long for her to fall in love with the place.
In her off time, she shadowed the pit crew, in an effort to learn more about barbecue. The crew threw her right in the mix and had her clean the pit room as her first task, which took over 8 hours.
“People thought, ‘What does this girl think she is doing,’” she recalled. “That motivated me more. I wanted to prove them wrong.”
In 2 ½ years, she did just that.
“Chef [Jason Dady] saw something in me and started pushing me. He steered me in the right direction,” she said. “I’m pretty loyal to that guy. I love working for him. I love the company and the opportunities.”
Today, she said people come to the restaurant to see the female pitmaster, but she wants to get rid of the stigma surrounding women in barbecue.
“It’s an empowering time to be a female,” she said. “I can help be a forefront of badass bitches.”
Laura offered some pointers for women who want to get into the industry
Don’t be scared.
Don’t overthink it.
Some people think I’m only the pitmaster because I have tits. I know the chef and staff know it’s because I have skill. You have to ignore that.
The key to happiness is doing what you love and loving what you do.
Meeting Laura would have been enough inspiration for one trip, but she was just the bark on the brisket (icing on the cake).
Before meeting Laura, I was welcomed into Erica Gregerson’s home for a plate of fresh parsnips and cucumbers.
Erica lives on a half-acre lot just outside of Couer d’Alene in Dalton Gardens. As you walk up to her one-story home, you have no idea about the amount of passion growing in her backyard.
She started out working for “big ag,” but now she’s working for herself, running Gregerson Family Farm and delivering fresh produce to the community and area chefs.
As I walked through her farm kitchen onto her back patio, the yard was filled with rows upon rows of vegetables.
She grows leeks, Walla Walla onions, red onions, cabbage, zucchini, squash, cucumbers, broccoli, peppers, eggplants, 23 varieties of tomatoes…the list goes on and on.
And she plants each crop by hand. She has zero employees.
“If I set each seed the spacing that I want, I have complete control,” she said.
That control is important to her because she wants to produce the best, consistent product possible, and the community has responded to her persistence.
Instead of going to farmer’s markets, she sells market style out of her garage.
“We open the door, and cars are there,” she said.
Erica said she’s been called the “backyard farmer” or “the kid who sells out of her garage,” but that doesn’t stop her from pushing forward.
After three years, she feels like she’s arrived.
Chefs are now coming to her to find out what’s in season or to ask her to grow certain varietals, because they know they’ll get vegetables that are harvested that day.
Erica also pitches ideas to chefs for their menus based on what she’s growing or what edible flowers she can harvest.
“Food brings a lot of people together,” she said.
And she’s not showing any signs of slowing down.
“My goal is anytime a bed comes out, to have seed and energy and mental capacity to put it back into something,” she said.
While Erica continues to grow, another Idaho transplant is building a farm of a different variety.
She calls herself a first-generation farmer, but from the looks of her orchard and the taste of her offerings, you’d think her techniques had been passed down for generations.
Nikki, a former graphic designer, teacher and photographer, quit her job, picked up her family and moved to a 10-acre lot in Athol, Idaho, from Northern California to follow her dreams and open Athol Orchards.
In 2016, she planted her first trees with a goal of connecting kids to the past.
“I’m a very old-fashioned gal. I want to be able to share the history of the apples,” she said. “I want to invite the community out and educate.”
Which is why she chooses to grow antique apple varieties. Some originate from Russia and England while others come from Missouri and Maine. She even grows Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple.
Although she’s planning to expand the orchard along a terrace where the “blossoms will meet the clouds,” apples aren’t her only passion.
She taught herself how to tap syrup from the maple tree in her front yard, and she has loyal bees who produce delicious honey and honeycomb.
Many folks enjoy the “apple pie in a bottle” on pancakes, waffles or ice cream. It’s also a wonderful addition to barbecue sauce, especially on pork.
Other ladies who inspired me
Kelly Lattin, chief operations officer of CouerGreens, a hydroponic herb garden in a freight container. She manages to grow 2 acres of herbs in a 320 square foot climate-controlled box on an empty lot.
TJ Taylor and her mom Jill Davis are two gals who will serve you up an unforgettable meal at Ten/6, a funky New Orleans meets Alice in Wonderland restaurant where the food is tastefully as eclectic as the decor. Be sure to try the Crescent City Croissant with fried green tomato, bacon, remoulade and egg.
I journeyed to Idaho expecting a tasty weekend of barbecue, and I left truly inspired by grab-em-by-the-horns women. I returned home with a new energy to keep forging my path, even if it’s the one less traveled.
None of this would have been possible if it weren’t for Wendi Haught. She is the co-owner of Framework Meetings. I had the pleasure of meeting her in Nashville at the Certified Angus Beef® brand Annual Conference.
Thanks to Wendi and her team, I have a new found love for Idaho. “The Gem State” is a precious place that I can’t wait to visit again.