Jen Castle and Blake Spalding are chef-owners of the highly acclaimed and award-winning restaurant, Hell’s Backbone Grill, located in Boulder, Utah, population 180 and one of the most remote towns in the United States.
Blake and Jen operate their restaurant following Buddhist principles, with a commitment to sustainability, environmental ethics, and social and community responsibility. They serve organic, locally produced, regionally and seasonally appropriate cuisine, growing many of their own vegetables and fruits organically in the restaurant’s two gardens and on their six-acre farm. They feature dishes made with fruit from Boulder’s heirloom orchards and rely largely on local ranchers for the grass-fed and -finished meat they serve.
Hell’s Backbone Grill, now in its 14th season, enjoys one of the highest Zagat ratings in Utah and was selected as a Fodor’s Choice 2006 recipient. The restaurant has also been voted “Best Restaurant in Southern Utah” by Salt Lake Magazine’s for the last eight years in a row, and was presented the prestigious Utah Governor’s Mansion Award for Culinary Artistry in 2006 by Governor Jon Huntsman. In 2005, Blake and Jen received an award from the Museum of Northern Arizona and the Center for Sustainable Environments for being “Culture Bearers of Sustainability in the Four Corners Region.” Additionally, Hell’s Backbone Grill was chosen as one of four restaurants representing Utah’s Slow Food movement in an exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. The restaurant has been featured in O, the Oprah Magazine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sunset Magazine, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Organic Gardening, Outside Traveler, Travel and Leisure, Washington Post, Men’s Journal, More, and National Geographic Traveler.
BLAKE SPALDING, originally from New Hampshire, began cooking when she was a small child. By the time she was eight years old, she was preparing full meals for her family. Blake began working in the restaurant world at an early age and at the age of sixteen moved with her family to Flagstaff, Arizona. In her twenties Blake began cooking as a river chef, mostly on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, and continued to do this for many years. She also worked for Greenpeace, during which she helped with an anti-pesticide campaign that inspired her passion for organics, sustainability, and all things biochemically and genetically unaltered. While working as a river chef, she began another career: “extreme catering”—cooking in remote, isolated locations, including a deserted island in the Bahamas and the Amazon rain forest. She also opened a catering business in Flagstaff. As a practicing Buddhist, she was often asked to cook for Tibetan lamas, and this directed her relationship with food into one fused with spirituality and meaning. In the year 2000, the opportunity to own Hell’s Backbone Grill presented itself, and she moved to Boulder with her friend in cooking, Jen Castle.
JEN CASTLE grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she was taught to prepare New Mexican and Polish cuisine by her mother and twelve aunts and uncles, who viewed mass-quantity cooking as standard procedure. She began cooking and experimenting with food when she was a very young child, spending much of her free time in the kitchen, imitating the tastes she grew up around and always making enough food to feed a crowd. She later moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, where she worked at Macy’s European Coffee House, Bakery and Vegetarian Restaurant and learned the ins and outs of running a restaurant: ordering, organizing, time and staff management, recipe-writing, and multi-tasking. This was where she learned to cook multiple major items simultaneously. While working at Macy’s, Jen also began cooking for trips on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, for groups of thirty or so trail-crew workers for weeks at a time, and later she continued to do outdoor catering for more river and backcountry trips. She traveled extensively and discovered culinary inspiration in foreign cultures. Jen moved to Boulder in 2000 to open Hell’s Backbone Grill with her friend Blake.