Award-winning chef hired for nationally acclaimed Utah restaurant

Tamara Stanger, who returned home to Utah after acclaim in Arizona, will be the new executive chef.

(Ace Hell's Backbone Grill & Farm) Tamara Stanger, right, is the new executive chef at Hell's Backbone Grill & Farm in Boulder, Utah, the restaurant announced on March 21, 2023. Stanger will be working with Hell's Backbone's founders, chef-owners Blake Spalding, left, and Jen Castle, center.

One of Utah’s most acclaimed restaurants, and one of its most remote, is gearing up for a new season by hiring a new executive chef.

Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm, the nationally recognized farm-to-table restaurant in Boulder, Utah — population 252 — in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, announced Tuesday that it has hired Tamara Stanger as its executive chef. She is the first executive chef in the restaurant’s history, aside from its founders, chef-owners Jen Castle and Blake Spalding — who remain as chefs de cuisine.

Stanger, a Utah native, comes to Hell’s Backbone from Heber City’s The Lakehouse at Deer Creek, where she started in 2021 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her focus then, according to an article in Park City Magazine, was “reviving food that Indigenous peoples and early pioneers ate.”

It was a return home for Stanger, who grew up in Mammoth, a ghost town in Juab County. When she came back to Utah, she hosted the first James Beard Foundation Taste America dinner in the state.

Before returning to Utah, Stanger had established herself in Arizona’s food scene, as chef at the award-winning Tempe restaurant Cotton & Copper, which opened in 2018 and closed in January 2021, a victim of the pandemic. In 2019, Stanger appeared on the Food Network competition show “Chopped.”

Stanger, in a release issued by Hell’s Backbone, said that “it is important to showcase the traditional foods of the region because they represent not only who we were as a society, but who we will become.”

Stanger’s history of creating menus that center around regional ingredients, traditional food, and historical and cultural roots will meld well at Hell’s Backbone, according to the release, where Castle and Spalding run the restaurant with an eye towards sustainability, food and social justice and the Buddhist principles on which the restaurant was founded.

“Tamara’s arrival comes at the perfect time,” Spalding said, “as we take the restaurant to the next level. It’s been nearly a quarter of a century that we’ve been in deep service to our project.”

In November, with the restaurant facing financial struggles, Castle and Spalding launched a GoFundMe campaign to cut into the business’s debts and upgrade its infrastructure. As of Tuesday, the campaign has raised $426,649 in pledges — far well above their $324,000 goal.

Hell’s Backbone Grill is opening its 24th season on Friday, March 31, with a new reservation system in place.

In January, Hell’s Backbone Grill was named a semifinalist in the “outstanding restaurant” category for the James Beard Awards, one of the most prestigious honors in the U.S. culinary field. It was the second year in a row the Boulder restaurant was listed as a semifinalist. Finalists are expected to be announced on March 29.