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The Path of the Pensive

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Photos by Q Concepts

It’s a golden fall morning, on the eve of opening weekend for the general hunting season in southwest Montana. A fire crackles in the wood-burning stove. The smell of coffee fills a lakeside cabin, backed by a sliding glass door, opening up to the Sapphire Mountains and hundreds of miles of public land. Venture 100 feet from the front door and cell service is lost. For Rick Mace — in jeans, a buttoned-down shirt, and thick wool socks, with a cat weaving in and out between his ankles — this isn’t how his day usually unfolds as executive chef at Cafe Boulud in Palm Beach, Florida, just a block and a half from Worth Avenue, lined by palm trees, Gucci, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton storefronts.

Mace looks out to the view beyond the deck, where there’s nothing but peaks, a lake surface like glass, and a half-hidden cluster of family cabins in the pines. The closest market to get milk is a 40-minute drive away, most of this on a pothole-riddled forestry road. He describes where he saw at least three sets of bear tracks the day before and countless evidence of elk on a five-mile hike into the mountains.

“There’s not a lot of places where you’d go, and you’d feel not only insignificant, but dwarfed by the scope of your surroundings,” Mace says, from an armchair angled west. “Then, to be on foot. In Tokyo, I was in a city of 13-million people, and I didn’t feel as overwhelmed as I do out here when I look up.”

rick mace

A 20-year upswing through the culinary world after graduating from the New England Culinary Institute has led him to the Barona Valley Ranch Resort & Casino in San Diego, California, then the Wynn Resort Las Vegas, Butler’s Restaurant at the Inn at Essex, Vermont, and the RT Lodge in Marysville, Tennessee, before his arrival in south Florida. Accolades follow him wherever he goes, including his part in a Michelin star at the Wynn and being named Palm Beach’s Chef of the Year by the Palm Beach Post in 2015 and one of Star Chef’s Rising Stars for Southern Florida the following year.

Since 2013, Mace’s focus has been on traditional French fare at Cafe Boulud — a fixture in the grand 90-year-old Brazilian Court Hotel — working with his mentor, restaurateur, and French chef Daniel Boulud, who he first impressed at the Daniel Boulud Brasserie in Las Vegas. The hours are long and travel in the off season — from New York City to Toronto to Japan, alongside Boulud — is a given. Balance this with being a husband and father of three girls between ages 8 and 16, and life’s a little crazy.

On a well-earned vacation, thousands of miles away at this cabin, Mace has found himself fishing with friends, scouting for tracks, and cooking in a bare-bones kitchen, preparing game that has been given to him in the last few days. Mostly pheasant, duck, and goose — reminiscent of cooking he did with his grandparents and father on the Ohio farm where he was raised, when meat was smoked on the back porch in a bread box-like Little Chief smoker. The two worlds aren’t as different as some assume, he says.

rick mace cooking

“I work for a French chef — I know that sounds that there’s no connection there. But Daniel is from Lyon, and he grew up on a farm, just like me.” Because of this, they share a straightforward approach to food, he says. “Potatoes, onions, and bacon are very much at the heart of what he does.”

Mace, the fourth generation to be raised on his family’s corn and soybean farm in Medina County, Ohio, was introduced to both cooking and hunting by his grandparents. His great-grandfather gave Mace his Winchester Model 12 rifle before he died, and Mace remembers exploring the woods for squirrel and rabbit, graduating to deer hunting by the time he was in grade school. In the summer, he’d fish on the farm’s pond for bass and bluegill. “To me, that was playing,” Mace says, recalling the first simple cooking methods he learned in his grandparents’ kitchen, starting with snapping turtles from the pond.

“Grandma would catch the snapping turtles and use them for soup, but my grandpa liked to boil the meat of the legs and then fry it up,” he remembers, with a chuckle. “That was the old-fashioned way to cook: to boil the hell out of something till it was tender, then roll it in flour and fry it in a cast-iron skillet.”

For Mace, that farm kitchen held his first memories of connecting food sourcing with cooking, and later, hunting also became a way to bond with his father as a teenager, when he went to live with him in Wyoming where the landscaped widened and grew wilder.

Mace describes the 16×16 army tent with a potbelly stove they traveled with on long weekends, from Cheyenne. His dad was a military man, and this led to connections that gave them access to private ranchland, where Mace became more adept in big game hunting. They would hunt the wheatlands — ideal for pronghorns and muleys that grazed on it during the summer. When his father got an elk tag, they would pack up and go to the Colorado border. “You’d freeze your ass off out in the field, then you’d have to do all the hard work of getting the animal out of the woods, into the car, and back to the house,” Mace says, nostalgia in his voice. “Finally, when you got to the point of cooking and eating it — that was where it started to get really fun for me.”

Once, when his father returned from an assignment in Greece, he brought back his new love of Greek cuisine to his son. Mace remembers his dad making a shepherd’s salad: cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, feta cheese, dried oregano, lemon, and olive oil. This became a defining moment.

“The first time I ate that at my grandmother’s house — then smelling olive oil in a hot pan,” Mace says, “that just transfixed me. I was hooked at that point; I became obsessed with cooking.”

While Mace had picked up basic butchery methods from his grandfather — how to dress rabbits, skin a deer, and break the carcass down with a saw — his father took it further, teaching him how to process the whole animal to make sausages and smoke meat, a skill that Mace would build on later in commercial kitchens. This continued in San Diego, when the butcher at the Barona retired, leaving Mace to run the butcher’s shop, and then at the Wynn in Las Vegas, where Mace was put in charge of all the charcuterie, the prepared meats. While working at the RT Lodge in Tennessee, he spent time with Michael Sullivan at Blackberry Farm, while Sullivan was running the charcuterie program as they were attaining USDA certification to begin selling to Delta Air Lines — a valuable process to see first-hand, Mace says.

chef rick mace

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