Sitting in a stone gazebo perched over the emerald waters of Lake Tahoe, we sit and talk and watch kayakers and the Sierra clouds float on a warm summer day. Executive chef Darren Weston at Thunderbird Lodge acknowledges how lucky he is to live and work here.
“I try to keep it local. I love going to the farmers’ market and pulling from our own herb garden.”
– Darren Weston
Weston originally moved to Tahoe in 2,000 and worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a wildlife biologist surveying the land. He fell in love with a fellow biologist, who eventually became an oral surgeon. They married and both relocated to the Bay Area so that she could pursue her career in dentistry. Weston, meanwhile, went to culinary school. Then the couple moved to New York City, this time so Weston could pursue his passion. He worked with famous restauranteur Mario Bitale and also cooked at Lupa, a New York City restaurant specializing in Roman trattoria fare.
The NYC food scene was exciting, but Weston and his wife yearned to come back to Tahoe. Four years ago, the opportunity came up when his wife took a job opportunity on the South Shore. With a decade of high-end culinary experience under his belt, Weston began catering for private affairs. A Thunderbird Lodge member suggested that the Whittell Estate hire him to cater its events. After a three-hour interview in the same gazebo where we were sitting, Weston got the job as Thunderbird’s new executive chef.
Although he is classically French trained, Weston has always worked in Italian restaurants and enjoys cooking locally sourced food of whatever is in season. Every Tuesday, he takes the “Thunderbird” yacht over to the South Lake Tahoe farmers’ market to get food for that week’s meals.
“I try to keep it local. I love going to the farmers’ market and pulling from our own herb garden. The top chefs are always at them picking out their own ingredients. You have to be there to see what’s in season,” Weston says. “I do two days of shopping for a one-day event.”
“He won’t let us shop for him. He’s very hands-on, making sure everything is fantastic,” says Thunderbird Lodge’s Shireen Piramoon.
Weston also began integrating the estate’s own herbs, such as the tangy purple flower grown as part of the chive shoots, into his rustic, simplistic dishes.
“His food is ridiculous, that’s why I don’t fit into my clothes anymore,” Piramoon says.
During the summer, Weston cooks meals for four to five events per week for private dinners, member events and corporate retreats.
“In New York, I would serve 500 people in a day. Here I’ll do a private dinner for four people,” Weston says. “Every piece of food at the Thunderbird, my knife has cut or I cooked it myself. Where we’re sitting right now I’ve done an eight-course dinner for two people. It’s just as fun to cook the food as it is to eat it. This is the best table in Tahoe.”
To be able to elevate the Whittell Estate with fine food is a dream come true for Weston.
“I can’t fake the passion. I love Tahoe and am unbelievably excited for this opportunity to come back. I can hike, mountain bike — I’m just happy. This is a really fun place; sometimes I gotta pinch myself. And there’s always something going on here,” he says.
Weston’s passion for Tahoe and cooking shines through and he is looking forward to other ways in which to highlight the Thunderbird Lodge experience.
Tuesday-Saturday | until mid October | Daily estate tours
Tuesdays & Fridays | July 10-Oct. 19 | Wine & Cheese Tours
Aug. 12 | Thunderfaire Food & Wine Fair
Sept. 9 | Winemaker’s Dinner
Oct. 7 | Autumn Harvest Dinner
“We could bring in a pop-up format and turn Thunderbird into a restaurant for a night with a full menu and two seating times. I also want to do more with our natural environment, like host picnics at Skunk Harbor. With the bike path being built all the way to Thunderbird, we could even do catered bike tours. I’d love to do a chef-led kayak tour or snowshoe tours in the winter where we surprise our guests with hot toddies up on the hill,” he says. “I’d love to get paid to mountain bike. I’m happy to fill my pack with amazing food,” he says, naming off some of the fine cheeses and wines he would serve his guests. “This is an amazing place to work. It’s the best place on planet Earth to do dishes.”