When you visit a Kentucky State Resort Park, chances are you’ll want to sample some of the food at the park. Each resort park has a chef and food service crew dedicated to making your stay enjoyable. Here’s a look at five Kentucky State Parks chefs and a little bit of why they enjoy cooking for park guests:
Susan Licholat has spent a career in the food industry and has been honored for her work. For
the last eight years, she has been a chef at Natural Bridge State Resort Park near Slade. The park sits on the edge of the popular Red River Gorge Geological Area and is part of the Daniel Boone National Forest.
She enjoys the park because each day presents something different for her. “One minute, we may be serving 800 people or more from our extensive buffet on special event days,” Susan says. “The next, we may be privileged to serve a Kentucky Proud plated dinner for dignitaries, or cater a wedding featuring authentic Indian cuisine in one of the most beautiful settings in the world.”
Natural Bridge, with its miles of trails and interesting geological features, attracts a variety of guests from all over the world. Hikers, campers, nature lovers, photographers and others come through Natural Bridge at all times seeking shelter, rest and food.
“There is nothing that can delight a person more than really good food,” she says. “If I can get someone to try something new and watch the expression on their face change as they fall in love with it -- that makes my day. This feeling never gets old.”
Her favorite dish? Parmesan encrusted catfish, accompanied by roasted fresh asparagus with shiitake mushroom relish. Susan says this is a fresh approach to a parks favorite (catfish) incorporating locally grown ingredients.
Further east, Duane Wagner is the chef at Pine Mountain State Resort Park, another park
popular for its scenic beauty in the mountains. Duane has been at the park for less than a year, but he’s been interested in cooking since he was a child spending time in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother.
“I started working in the food service industry at around 12 years old, carrying people’s food to their table for them,” Duane says. “This allowed me to work at Pine Mountain State Resort Park while I was in high school. Being around that kind of culinary scene really opened my eyes to all the different things you could do in a kitchen, and after graduating I started my management career in food service.”
After working at several restaurants, Duane returned to Pine Mountain. He enjoys experimenting with different cooking techniques and recipes to make the Pine Mountain dining experience unique. “A great example is our bourbon glazed salmon and our sweet potato served with maple bourbon butter,” he says. “All of this is done in house, from scratch, and the true reward is in seeing the pleasure that the community is taking in the new offerings at Pine Mountain.”
Duane’s favorite dish to prepare is bourbon-glazed salmon served over wild rice with a sweet potato on the side. The potato is topped with brown sugar and homemade maple bourbon butter. “This was one of the dishes that I personally took great pleasure in creating for our new entrée only service menu. It allows us to utilize Kentucky’s own Woodford Reserve in both products. This is something that our local guests can take pride in, as well as offering our out-of-state visitors a unique taste of a genuine Kentucky product.”
Due west from Pine Mountain, Chef Arthur M. Gerrald shares his culinary talents with the
guests at Lake Cumberland State Resort Park near Jamestown. Gerrald’s career has been mostly spent at country club restaurants in the south. He is a product of Sullivan University in Louisville, graduating magna cum laude in culinary arts management and baking and pastry science. Before his career as a chef, Arthur worked as an electrical engineer in North Carolina.
He has not developed a favorite dish yet at Lake Cumberland, “but I do like Cajun and Greek styles of cooking,” he says.
The park is known for some excellent views of Lake Cumberland – a view that Arthur calls “inspiring.” The lake covers more than 65,000 acres and is popular for fishing and boating. It’s the ninth largest reservoir in the U.S.
Most visitors at Lake Cumberland State Resort Park are interested in having a good time and Arthur’s cooking is part of the equation. “I enjoy cooking because it lets me show off and I get to make people happy,” he says.
Another chef who likes to make customers smile is Jeff Sohles at Rough River Dam State
Resort Park near Leitchfield. The Georgia native also worked at country clubs and restaurants before arriving at Rough River about a year ago.
Sohles points out that food service is “one of the few industries where the service provided creates immediate satisfaction. When filling such a basic need as eating, it is a blessing to see instant gratification in customer’s smiles. Those smiles give a new purpose to each and every day.”
Rough River is another state resort park with lake attractions such as boating and fishing.
Jeff’s favorite dish is smoked meats. “To me nothing compares to meat that has been smothered in mouth watering spices and slow smoked for hours and hours,” he says.
Jeff, who was recently honored by the state Department of Juvenile Justice Training Branch, is proud of his restaurant’s soup and salad bar, a staple among all 17 resort parks. “We offer a large selection of fresh vegetables and homemade salads,” he says. “Whether by itself, with one of our daily specials, or our full buffet, our salad bar offers something for the whole family to enjoy while soaking in the natural beauty of the state park system.”
In western Kentucky, Kelly Staples has been the chef at Kentucky Dam Village State Resort
Park for the last four years. The Paducah native previously worked at a restaurant in Metropolis, Illinois.
Another popular fishing and boating resort, Kentucky Dam Village sits along Kentucky Lake, a 160,000-acre lake that makes up part of the Land Between the Lakes National Recreational Area.
Picking a favorite dish was difficult for Kelly because, he says, “I love it all. With me it becomes more about what dish am I most proud to serve. I really like doing our garlic-and-herb crusted prime rib, because people love it. I like making items from scratch. When items are made with fresh ingredients and traditional methods, it allows you to achieve flavor profiles not possible with premade products.”
One of the things Kelly likes about state park food service is the ability to offer guests what they want. “We can do a down-home meal with fried chicken, catfish, mashed potatoes and all the fixin’s, or we could do broiled lobster tails,” he says. “We can do breakfast, sandwiches and steaks. It all depends on our guests’ needs. There aren’t many places that you can work that allow you the freedom to cater service to your customer’s needs in that way.”
So why does Kelly like his job? “It gives me a chance to be creative and let my personality be expressed in the food that I prepare. It gives me a chance to meet a lot of people, through their dining experience and become lifelong friends. Oh yeah, and I love to eat! I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.”