Chris Kastner didn’t go to culinary school; he learned by doing.
In the mid-1970s, Kastner took a job as a dishwasher for the Sun Valley Co. That was his first gig in a professional kitchen. It’s where the seed was planted, one that eventually grew into his own restaurant, CK’s Real Food in Hailey, and to Kastner’s 11th gold award as valley’s best chef this year.
“You have to want it. It has to be in your blood. That’s what it was for me,” he said. “When I got into it, I started as a dishwasher. I just loved the whole kitchen dynamic. I didn’t mind washing dishes. They see you’re interested and after one season of dishwashing, all of a sudden you’re cooking.”
Kastner learned the culinary arts working with acclaimed chef and restaurateur Russell Armstrong both in Sun Valley and Newport Beach, Calif.
“That was like culinary school for me,” he said.
CK’s Real Food opened up in 2003, and for the past 17 years his menu has consisted of dishes that are globally inspired but locally sourced. His ingredients come from local and regional providers, and sustainability is key. Composting and recycling are of the utmost importance at CK’s—even its used cooking oil goes to a local science teacher for his bio-fuel car.
“People know what they’re going to get with us—a good meal,” Kastner said. “We’re not reinventing the wheel, but they like us, like our seasoning, like our farm-to-table mentality, bringing fresh local stuff as much as we can. It’s not about one person. It takes one person to drive it, but a lot of people have to buy into it to make it work.”
Speaking of his winning streak (he’s taken first place every year since 2009 except 2013, when he took silver), Kastner said, “All that tells me is that we must be doing something right. People like what we’re doing, and all you can do is try to keep getting better at what you do.”
Though technically a personal accolade, the award means much more than that to the valley’s best chef.
“For me, it’s a team effort. I can’t do everything every day all the time. I’m older now and I’m not here seven nights a week like I used to be. This speaks to what kind of team we have, all great people, many of whom have been with me since we opened. They understand what we’re trying to do and I don’t like to think of it as an individual thing.”
Kastner said the past few months have been interesting and challenging, but he’s optimistic for the future. The ability to quickly transition into curbside pickup helped a great deal. CK’s has been welcoming a limited number of diners back into the restaurant, and those numbers will expand with the warmer weather allowing for better outdoor seating.
“We’re optimistic this is going to be OK,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a good summer for restaurants this year.”
Not that the pandemic hasn’t posed its problems, but Kastner and his team have seen hard times before, they’ve coped with weak economies and have enjoyed healthy ones. What remains most important is the food.
“We went from 40 reservations to zero overnight back in March. It’s life. You get dealt this hand and you wonder what you’re going to do. Well, you’re going to play your hand as best you can and make do. It could’ve been way worse. It’s about reacting, improvising, and if anything, it’s helped us focus more on the food.”
New challenges aside, Kastner and his team remain dedicated to what has made him, consistently, the best chef in the valley: taking fresh, local ingredients and turning them into CK’s “Real Food.”