I am on a quest to make good food for others to enjoy. I started my quest early in life, dreaming of creating food that was art and that would satisfy people. I have been learning how ever since. I create not just to nourish others, but also for the sake of the creations themselves. I recently came to understand that my lifelong quest is a search for food alchemy: the equivalent of turning lead into gold. When simple ingredients transform into sensuous, joyful food—that is the reward.
I learned to enjoy the alchemical delights of food as a little girl in my mother’s kitchen. My mother cooked like her mother and her grandmother and aunts and other family members who lived on the Texas/ Mexico border, before they immigrated to Salt Lake City. I was surrounded by incredible aromas, texture, and flavors. In summers, I would visit another grandmother in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where I experienced another set of delicious American flavors and food magic. Growing up, I knew I wanted to make food like my mother and grandmothers.
I remember as a child walking into my Grandma’s kitchen with my mother and seeing my Grandma pounding a large round steak with a cleaver, making crisscross cuts all over it and filling it up with flour and salt and crushed garlic, cardamom seeds and peppercorns. She would sear it in a huge skillet and cover it with cream water and a little vinegar, throw in some bay leaves and fresh oregano, and put on the lid to simmer in its self-made gravy. I loved the wonder of that food.
I also saw my Grandma baking piles of cookies and cooking up a most delicious and amazing Mexican vanilla custard pudding filled with bananas and cream. I loved eating her fried chicken. She would cut up a whole chicken, coat it in raw egg, then shake the coated chicken in a paper bag that had just the right mixture of flour, salt, pepper, herbs and seasonings. After it was fried up, I would eat it to the bone. Her kitchen was small and scant but her food was flavorful and generous.
I came to understand the intimate and emotional connection we all have with food. I recognized the deep ties we have with food and family and love and comfort and home. I experienced how the right smells, tastes, textures and aromas can fill some empty spaces inside us and transport or even, in some cases, transform us. Our emotional connections with food spring from our primal yearnings and bring us joy and fulfillment in a way nothing else can.
I have been making food professionally for the last 20 years, starting in the kitchen of our family restaurant when I was 17. I was taught by a unique and talented Lakota Indian, Chef Craig One Feather, how to take simple ingredients and combine them in a way that made food addictive. I then trained professionally at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. There I tried hard to soak up everything I could about being a Food Alchemist. I took it very seriously and worked really hard. I paid attention to what parts of food preparation really resonated with me.
After culinary school, I returned to Hot Springs, South Dakota, where my parents helped me to create a new restaurant that we named The Blue Vervain. I wanted to continue exploring how good food could be, and I wanted to share that with others. Later we moved The Blue Vervain to Manitou Springs, Colorado, where I was voted Best in Show, and won the People’s Choice Award at the Broadmoor Hotel Chef’s Gala. The Blue Vervain was also voted “Best Fine Dining Restaurant” by Colorado Springs Independent readers in 2006.
I was 23 when we started that restaurant, and I was blown away with the reactions I got from the food during the next eight years. So much that it seemed magical and mysterious to me. I refused to be afraid of following my instincts while preparing the food and all the menus I created. It wasn’t about how exotic the ingredients may have been, but the way the flavors and ingredients were combined. I saw the creation as a song and all the flavors were the notes.
I see those years of working at The Blue Vervain as the highlight of my life. But, the physical stress of the work and pressures of running a kitchen took their toll on me. I did not give myself the nourishment that I need to sustain the demands of the job. I worked myself into burn out. I knew I needed to learn things; what I needed to learn I didn’t know, but I knew this path was not the answer.
For the next eight years of my life, I worked all over the country, from Florida to San Francisco, for companies that catered for NASCAR and the U.S. Open. I prepared food for the clubs, suites and other parties. After that, I worked three seasons at Hell’s Backbone Grill, an organic restaurant and farm centered on Tibetan Buddhist principles. This restaurant is located in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Boulder, Utah. All the time I spent alone in the desert and high up on the mountain was a balm to my body and my spirit. The power of this place is transformational and a great mystery to me.
I am sincere and devout about “American Cuisine.” My take on it is a little different from hamburgers and fries (although I love them, too). I see American Cuisine as coming to us from everywhere, from all over the world, and landing in small and big places all over the continent. Each cultural contribution brings its own stories full of escape, love, adventure, family ties and languages long lost, which speak to me in salt and sugar and sour and bitter and aroma and color and intricacies. These are nuances that can infiltrate our palate, from the wildness of the earth into feasts of blessed satisfaction.
My passion is to transform simple ingredients into something extraordinary. I have chosen to be bold and to trust my intuition, being guided by the basic ingredients as they speak to me. I have never been able to separate myself from the desire to want to make food for others. It is the song of my heart; it’s what I know I came here to do.
I have been in love with the Black Hills in South Dakota, especially Hot Springs, since my family moved here from Seattle twenty years ago. There is a timeless feeling that exists here. The red cliffs, plants, and the warm river running through town has always filled me with awe. And even though I couldn’t always live here, my heart was here. I recently moved back, and I know it’s the perfect place to manifest my vision, drawing on all of my experiences.
When I was a young girl, before moving to the Black Hills, I had dreams about buffalo. It was a recurring dream theme. After my family settled in Hot Springs when I was a teenager, I had some very precise and unforgettable dreams about buffalo. I knew they were bringing me messages. I found out that those who dream of buffalo are called “buffalo dreamers.”
At Moccasin Springs, here in Hot Springs, South Dakota, Kara Hagen is breathing new life into an ancient natural hot springs site. I am very grateful for the opportunity to create food amidst the healing mineral waters and red dirt, and make my home in the place I love with the great and majestic visitors of my dreams.