CUSTER | Their own home initially threatened but eventually spared by the fast-moving Legion Lake Fire, Chris and Terrie Keller turned their attention to feeding the nearly 250 firefighters battling the blaze in Custer State Park.
Preparing meals for that number of people would seem like a daunting task, but Chris Keller is well-equipped to whip up mass quantities of good food.
He is the park’s executive chef, overseeing food service for tourists and other guests at Legion Lake Resort, Blue Bell Lodge, the State Game Lodge and Sylvan Lake Lodge.
“We don’t mind helping these guys, because they’re helping our houses and places of work from catching fire, so we have a lot of appreciation for them,” Keller said Tuesday from the kitchen at the State Game Lodge, where he and other evacuated park staff worked to assemble meals.
A neighbor, one of the park’s rangers, alerted the Kellers to the approaching danger from the fire sparked about 7:30 a.m. Monday.
Their home, the nearby Star Academy East campus and the Legion Lake Lodge, were evacuated, with the small number of winter staff sent to the State Game Lodge.
“We got here and immediately turned around and started making box lunches for all the firefighters,” Keller said.
Although the park is essentially shut down for the winter, Keller and his staff still prepare meals for occasional functions, so the cupboard is never completely bare.
Regency CSP Ventures is the park’s concessionaire. The Ramkota Hotel in Rapid City, another partner, provided food, and there have been trips to the grocery store as well, he said.
He used sliced turkey and ham from State Game Lodge coolers to make deli-cut sandwiches for box lunches, which also included a bag of chips, and high-energy fruit, cookie, candy bar and strips of jerky.
They also prepared a breakfast, more box lunches and were readying a sit-down meal at the Game Lodge Tuesday night.
Roast beef, mashed potatoes, carrots and peas topped the menu, with layer cake and fruit pies for dessert. “Nothing too crazy, but satisfying,” he said. “They’ll actually get to sit down at a table and not eat on a burning stump.”
Keller grew up on Long Island and honed his chef skills at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N.Y.
He spent more than 20 years as a chef at Colorado Springs and Steamboat Springs, Colo., before coming to the Black Hills seven years ago.
Terrie, his wife of 13 months, is from Jamaica. She works at an assisted living center in Custer, but is also a hostess at the lodges. She and other park staffers have made the food effort enjoyable, he said.
“It’s really no big deal. It’s just everybody helping out that’s made it pretty easy,” Keller said. “It’s actually been pretty fun.”