The Next Mongolian Idol

Mongolia is a dream. Its vast beauty is beyond words and the experiences I’ve had here are some of my most treasured. I must say though, that the most surreal moment of my Mongolian adventure: Making spaghetti and camel meatballs for the staff and enjoying our meal while watching Mongolian Idol!

What an adventure!

I once met a builder who worked in South Jersey named Jalsa. He’s a Mongolian Kalmyck Buddhist. He’d come to Market In The Middle whenever he was in town and encourage me to come to Mongolia. One day, I expressed interest in taking him up on that adventure. Jalsa asked if I’d consider training his staff at a five star off the grid lodge in the Gobi Desert. The lodge had hosted National Geographic employees, researchers, photographers, writers, and scientists. Some would come to research, film, or photograph the desert and use the lodge as a home base. Others would come for the experience of being so far from everyone and everything, to be truly disconnected, to truly and fully reconnect. Whether you’re digging for dinosaur fossils, or a celebrity looking to escape the noise of life, 3 Camel Lodge is the epitome of high-end and off the grid (You can check this breathtaking place out for yourself. It’s called 3 Camel Lodge:

I found myself living in one of the gers (the term used for the lodgings that look like tents but are far more like luxury resorts inside) and preparing to teach the staff some new culinary approaches and the art of elevated hospitality. I was excited for my first day and knew that several notable challenges would greet me.  

First was the matter of being “Off-The-Grid”. We would be cooking without electricity as 3 Camel Lodge ran solely on solar power. I’d find myself baking bread when the solar would run out and the ovens would shut off.   I’d need to learn about and make use of local ingredient and what was most accessible because in the desert many ingredients were hard to come by. Finally, I found that those I was tasked with teaching about elevated hospitality did not speak English. I developed a system using a gourmet cookbook, giving each person a name that corresponded to a word in the book (Basil, Chervil, Rosemary, and so on.) and we communicated through food, using the cookbook as a tool.  

The surroundings were surreal and the challenges I experienced truly helped me to grow as a person and as a chef. Hospitality is a feeling and connection you make with clients and staff and so I found the best way to teach this was to have those I worked with experience it. I connected with the staff to allow them to feel a heightened sense of this connection. I knew that upon feeling connected, welcomed, and appreciated, they would bring that feeling to their guests. The truth that I learned from this exercise was that the Mongolian people are full of open arms hospitality and I was only serving to bring that to the forefront of the Lodge’s experience. Perhaps that meant helping the staff to craft an exceptional cocktail for the bar. This cocktail would make the guest aware of the priceless nature of the experience: Each time they smell or taste passion fruit juice, they’ll recall with joy the very moment they first sipped at sunset in the middle of the gorgeous Gobi Desert.

Hospitality is memories, connecting with the server or bartender, engaging with the sights and smells of the surroundings, and making that memory unique and special every time. In truth, there was no re-training of this staff, there was no miracle. I simply discerned what I could hone in on, what things they were already making special, and guided them in heightening the impact of the things they do well.  

We could add garlic to the wok-made bread, include local herbs from green house, make some hummus as appetizer snack because it’s easy to store and recreate.  We focused on that which was affordable, accessible, and memorable. When we realized that an experience could not be what tourists might expect we shifted the story about the experience to make it special and unique to the location. For example, the freezers could not be kept steady enough to make ice but a chilled passionfruit cocktail in the desert was surely more memorable than

Aside from the training of the staff, I had amazing adventures in Mongolia that I won’t soon forget. Jalsa wanted to give back and protect resources from exploitation and so we shared a common bathroom, drank filtered water, and traveled by car through the desert to get to the place because no roads were paved as not to disturb the ecosystem. I tried yak, camel, and horse milk, had a staff dinner complete with spaghetti and camel meatballs, set up a greenhouse so that food would become more sustainably grown year-round at the lodge. I spent thirty days with no communication, making the occasional call back home with a military style satellite phone.

One evening we experienced an Olympic-style talent exhibition: Archery, horse racing, wrestling, even falconeer-ing. There were so many people watching at the lodge that night and it was truly remarkable. Mongolian Idol aside, perhaps the most memorable was my dinner in the desert. Some guests of the lodge and I made an 11-mile camel trek, and as we let the camels graze, we watched them as they walked across the setting sun like something out of a movie.

I spent time with amazing people, my books, and myself. It was a stillness-filled, serene, peaceful, and focused daily meditation. For a Buddhist, the emptiness of the place, the place being void of everything, the place making me feel whole, was indescribable. There were no roads, no lights, and to get to this oasis, one must drive through the desert itself. I permitted myself to be in that uncomfortable place of being with only myself and the countless, limitless stars.

The vast and deep experience I was given in those thirty days made me want to add more of that into my life. There are not, in my mind, many places you can go to get away from light sound and communication. This chance to disconnect is a rare opportunity that I’d encourage others to take advantage of more often.