Holly Arnold Kinney operates landmark restaurant.
She reveres tradition but looks forward.
BY CLAIRE WALTER
Photo by Carmel Zucker
Every museum worth its salt has someplace to eat. When you visit The Fort south of Morrison, you feel as if you are dining in a museum. Within the thick adobe walls are eight dining rooms decorated with Southwestern antiques, artifacts and artwork from the region’s intertwined Native American, Spanish and Anglo traditions.
This treasure-filled landmark was the brainchild of the late Sam Arnold, once a newspaper reporter, golden-voiced radio personality on Denver’s KOA radio, advertising man, cookbook author and visionary. A Yale graduate, he preferred the traditions of the West to Ivy League urbanity. His vision stretched to Colorado’s frontier past, its traditions and its foods. His daughter, Holly Arnold Kinney, is now the keeper of the flame.
A line drawing in a history book of Bent’s Fort, a trading post built in 1834 along the Santa Fe Trail near the present-day La Junta, caught the attention of Sam and his wife, Elizabeth. They had previously bought some acreage on a high hillside overlooking Denver so their children could grow up in the country. The property was a perfect location, they thought, for a family adobe house.
They were refused a residential loan for such a structure, but did obtain a Small Business Administration loan to open a restaurant. While 22 construction workers from Taos replicated Bent’s Fort with 80,000 adobe bricks made of sun-dried hay and clay, Sam immersed himself in the food and culture of the Santa Fe Trail. He read diaries and journals of early 19th-century settlers, trappers and traders; visited farms and ranches to find authentic ingredients; and also began culinary training with James Beard and other authorities. The Fort Restaurant opened in 1963, with the Arnold family living upstairs.
Distinctive & Distinguished
The Fort is a unique dining experience in a local landmark, an attraction for visitors to Colorado, a cultural guardian of the traditions of the Southwest and a family legacy. In the last years of Sam’s life, Holly became her father’s partner in the restaurant, and following his death in 2006 she became the sole proprietor. Her childhood bedroom is now her office, and her portrait hangs behind The Fort’s hostess stand.
Every dish on The Fort’s immutable core menu seems to come with a story. When she was just 10 years old, Holly Arnold invented the Adobe Rattlesnake Sundae: ice cream topped with hot fudge sauce, the cinnamon chocolate powder used for Mexican hot chocolate and gummy worms to represent snakes. Holly’s Adobe Sundae is still on the menu—sans gummy worms.
In the restaurant’s early years, the Arnolds began serving a soup of chicken, rice and beans called CaldoTlalpeño that they had discovered in Durango, Mexico. Popular as the soup was, no one could pronounce it. One day, Leona Wood, the septuagenarian who ran The Fort’s gift shop, tasted a bowl and declared, “That was my grandfather’s favorite soup.” Leona was the last surviving granddaughter of the legendary frontier scout Kit Carson. The soup, renamed “Bowl of the Wife of Kit Carson.,” remains a Fort favorite to this day.
New dishes are introduced cautiously and with forethought. When executive chef Geoffrey Groditski, with The Fort since 1991, develops a dish, he always asks himself, “Would Sam like this?” When Holly evaluates a proposed new dish, she not only considers its taste and its provenance, but she also puts it to the “Sam-ism” test. “My dad hated dark food,” she recalls, “so dark braised meats need to be plated with light or bright ones.”
Bent’s Fort sat at what was then the border with Mexico, and traders and settlers traveled from one country to another, so Mexican dishes are also part of the repertoire. Some are classics; others not. At the end of a camping trip when sous-chef Juan Zapeta’s family had eaten almost everything, his father combined leftover bacon, chorizo, onions and garlic, added beans and cooked the mixture in leftover coffee. This spontaneous family recipe has become The Fort’s fabulous Mexican Campfire Beans, tricked up a bit with buffalo demi-glace.
The Fort famously serves 80,000 buffalo entrees annually, more than any other single place on the planet. Grill cooks Aaron Brunettil and John Lusk have been with the restaurant for more than 10 years, which just about assures that grilled meats—including the popular Game Plate (an elk chop, a buffalo filet medallion and a teriyaki-glazed quail)—are delivered precisely as ordered. Yet Brunettil and Lusk are practically newcomers to The Fort family. Dining room manager Chris Sears has been with the restaurant for more than 23 years. And some people are there for eternity. When Carlos Molina retired as a maintenance manager at The Fort, he moved out of state. After he passed away, his widow brought his ashes back to The Fort. He is interred there now in a quiet spot under a red-rock cliff, along with Holly’s parents, her brother Keith and Sissy Bear, a beloved Canadian black bear that became a family pet.
When the original Bent’s Fort was operative and even when The Fort Restaurant was established, natural, organic, locavore and sustainable were not part of the food vocabulary. While honoring the past, The Fort has long supported Colorado farmers and their carefully preserved traditional crops. “My father was the first to use local chipotle back in 1963,” Holly says. “We were the first in Colorado to serve San Luis Valley black quinoa and fingerling potatoes.”
Holly’s mother, who grew up on a Georgia plantation, started a garden using seeds from the Museum of the Fur Trade in Nebraska in the courtyard when the restaurant first opened. Today, The Fort’s central courtyard has a thriving vegetable and herb garden. Holly treasures the crops that were staples of the Colorado frontier, including the “three sacred sisters”: corn, beans and squash. To prepare the 20- by 20-foot space, workers dug down six feet and replaced tired soil that defied anything to grow with good soil and organic compost. “The chefs are starting to depend on the garden to supplement the organic products we order,” Holly says. A longtime customer, seeing the flourishing micro-farm, asked Holly, “Can we call it Sissy Bear’s Garden?” Her answer: “Of course.”
Some aspects of energy conservation at The Fort are relatively easy, since those three-foot thick adobe walls provide phenomenal insulation. Water conservation, waste management and recycling take more awareness and effort in the 21st century. The Fort partners with Waste Farmers to compost food scraps and paper products. The resulting biological nutrients are reintroduced into local farming operations. If Sam were still alive, he would probably be poring through his history books to find out exactly how the pioneers and early settlers conserved the Southwest’s limited resources. Fortunately for diners, history buffs and art lovers, Holly Arnold Kinney carries on her father’s legacy, honoring the past and looking toward the future. The only element lacking is Sam Arnold’s mellifluous baritone.
Claire Walter is a Boulder-based author, writer and blogger (www.culinary-colorado.com ).