TRIAL BY FIRE
Into the desert, Ranchlands chef Ivan Guillen perfects the art of the open flame.
It’s been a long, strange trip for Ivan Guillen.
But it’s the kind of story, full of many lifetimes, that feels as if all roads lead toward some destiny, some greatness, with this current chapter coming pretty close—out in the heart of the American West, amidst the cottonwood groves, the white sand dunes, between the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains of the San Luis Valley, where Guillen has become executive chef of the Zapata Ranch of Ranchlands in Mosca, Colorado.
“I saw bison and mountains and prairies,” says Guillen. “It fit into everything I was working towards.”
At 28 years old, Guillen is already an old soul—or old bull, as he puts it, a toro antiguo—and that pours through into the art of his cooking. It’s a romance that began in his native Mexico, where he fell hard during a childhood spent between Veracruz and Michoacán. Here both sides of the family sold meals out of their garages, and his maternal grandfather ran his own restaurant, selling seafood—mariscos—that they fished from the neighboring lagoon.
“I just grew up around food—helping everybody prep, clean fish, peel shrimp, and on the mainland ranch, help my cousins pick cabbage and radishes and other vegetables,” says Guillen. In middle school, he started to watch cooking shows, becoming a big fan of Alton Brown, and before long, he began experimenting. “When I’d go grocery shopping with my mom, I’d start asking for random ingredients. The first thing I did was doctor Hamburger Helper.”
But it wasn’t a straight arrow toward becoming a chef.
Guillen wound up as a welder in Corona, California, until his friends who told their boss at the Jack Daniels 300 Club at the Anaheim Honda Center about his skills. He landed his first restaurant gig there, at the chef’s table no less, at age 19. (It was also through that arena that Guillen teamed up with a catering company based part of the year on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where we once used their ovens to season our pans and, in turn, during his brief stint on the East Coast, befriended Ivan.)
Back in California, Guillen worked in fine-dining kitchens across Los Angeles County, from downtown to Riverside to Santa Monica and Culver City. Eventually he quit the business and started selling tacos on the street—roasted leg of lamb, octopus and chorizo, cactus and purslane, all on scratch-made tortillas—which garnered local press and long queues at his flat-top grill on Hollywood Boulevard. A speakeasy supper club soon followed, with Guillen building his own backyard kitchen centered around live-fire cooking.
See his Instagram—it was a cathedral of the open flame, fit with an in-ground pit and stone asador tabletop over which he’d string chickens, hang cauldrons, set cast irons on cinder blocks, make mole, fry squash blossoms, and all the while, dream of one day fleeing the city for his own piece of land.
This is where Ranchlands found him.
“I dropped everything and came here,” says Guillen, who was asked to apply for an assistant chef role, which he started in August 2021. “I thought it would be two or three months, but once I arrived, I was pretty in awe of being here.”
Ranchlands is a far cry from the busy streets of the City of Angels. Rooted in conservation and owned by the Nature Conservancy, it’s a working ranch—two really—that taps into the back-to-the-land movement. Across 100,000 acres, they manage herds of American bison and beefmaster cattle, working with landowners to promote agriculture as a way of preserving and protecting their natural landscapes. And they offer experiential travel, such as overnight stays, hands-on workshops, wildlife tours, and other outdoor recreation like fishing and hunting, which helps spread the gospel. These are the people, along with the ranch’s sprawling team, who Guillen now feeds his beautiful, rugged, renegade cuisine.
“The menu is subject to change every day,” he says, typically featuring four dishes. “I walk into the walk-in every morning and look at my ingredients. I think maybe I’ll make a pasta today. I’ll figure out some salad. I have asparagus ends that I could turn into a cold soup with fish stock from the bones of arctic char. Everything is off the cuff.”
He says, that with a background in drawing and painting, he sees flavors as colors, envisioning a dish by closing his eyes and watching the different hues merge. Mexico still imbues nearly every combination he creates, as does a touch of Italian fundamentals.
“I think of the old ways of doing it,” says Guillen, who focuses on local and seasonal ingredients as much as possible, utilizing the ranch’s prime meat and foraging the surrounding landscape for the likes of wild mint, juniper, sage, rocket, dandelions, and even pine nuts from the nearby pinyon trees. “I’d like to think of it as pure. I always say that it’s a primitive thing. With quality ingredients, you don’t need as much. My food is very simple, but to people, it seems very complex.”
Tapping into our most primal hungers, the heart of his cooking might always be a live fire, which also harks back to his homeland, not only in how his family prepared their meals, but also faint memories of controlled burns in the surrounding fields—an influence that eventually wound its way into his culinary code.
“I don’t know if I’m a pyromaniac,” says Guillen. “It is just instinctual.”
Right now, there is a fire ban in Alamosa County, with the region experiencing extreme drought, which has pulled his meals inside over a six-top range, flat-top grill, two ovens, and a smoker. One recent night at the end of June, he was pulling together a wild green salad with brunia flowers, a bone-in pork chop with lemon-caper butter and crisp caperberries, and roasted marble potatoes with fennel, herb oil, and chili. Still, he knows what’s missing without that lick of spark and smoke.
“The chili arbol sauce would not taste the same on a stovetop,” he says. “I only like to cook with almond wood, which is clean, it doesn’t penetrate the food with an aroma, so you taste the steak, not the mesquite, not the hickory. I also cook a lot of things dirty—straight onto coals. There’s no char like it. Fire makes you hyperaware of what you’re doing. It makes it exciting to cook. And it’s like sitting around a campfire.”
At this point, building one has become somewhat of second nature, but Guillen admits to learning the technique—simply a foundation of kindling supported with bigger logs—over time. Practice, he says. Trial. Error. And perhaps something innate, too.
“I tell my cooks, every time their shift is over, as they’re driving home or lying in bed before they go to sleep, revise the day and think about how they could make the next day better, or faster, if they went right instead of left,” he says. “I never really had a plan for anything. My only plan was to be free. And I ended up here.”
Photographs by Parker Fitzgerald, Claudia Landreville, and Wes Walker, courtesy of Ranchlands.