Summer Issue 2010
A Unique Opportunity for Special Events
by Rachel Coleman
Southwest Kansas may be different from other places in many ways — barbed wire rather than picket fences, oil rigs instead of light houses — but people everywhere share a desire to mark life’s milestones. Usually, that involves food, family, friends and a gathering spot where guests can toast the bride and groom, sing “Happy Birthday” or honor a graduate.
But special events don’t materialize out of good intentions. The advance planning, menu selection, guest list, even choosing a location often rub out the “special” and replace it with “stressful.”
SJK Catering was established in 2006 to put the pleasure back into a party — with a passion.
“We got into the business because we’re so passionate about good food and good times with people you care about,” said CEO Jessica Knudsen, giving a nod to executive chef and business partner Todd Mason. It’s second nature for him to head to the kitchen, no matter what the occasion.
“I love to cook, always have, so whether I’m grilling a steak or creating a recipe a client requested, I’m doing what I love,” he said. “It actually gives me an adrenaline rush.”
Mason trained at the well-respected New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, and apprenticed at the five-star Broadmoor Resort in Colorado. During a nearly three-year rotation, he learned from masters in the butcher shop, bakery and the facility’s four restaurants which boast “elite, innovative and diverse cuisine.”
A self-described country boy who prefers Kansas to high society, Mason will cook anything but barbecue, “since there are plenty of people already doing that,” he said. At present, SJK’s menu fills three pages, “but I’ll try anything a client asks for,” he said. “I cook by feel and develop my own recipes.”
While Mason prepares molten lava cakes, crab rangoon, Greek spinach pastries or meat and potato standards, Knudsen handles the rest. She coordinates food, linen and tableware rentals, irons out the details of how a party might flow from hors d’oeuvres to a buffet or sit-down dinner and works with clients to integrate themes into the entire event.
One key element on SJK’s menu isn’t even related to food; it’s the unique location available for customers at El Rancho Exotica, the country estate where Knudsen grew up about one mile west and one mile north of the 83/Hugoton intersection.
Visitors who pass through the stone-flanked wrought iron gate enter a world of cool green — a dramatic contrast to the surrounding dun-colored pasture land. Beneath mature shade trees and evergreens, pathways wind past flower beds and lush, lawn-covered hillsides. Peacock cries punctuate the peace, their dramatic displays unfolding from time to time.
Near the center of the property, Mason plies his trade in an industrial catering kitchen. A bit to the north, a wide veranda and fire pit offers space for guests to mingle, dance or relax on the benches. Ornamental grasses, flower plantings and a small woodland surround the open space, offering a sense of secluded intimacy. Landscaped walkways lead south and east, for guests who might enjoy a leisurely stroll, or want to view the exotic animals.
Though it resembles a private zoo, or perhaps a botanical garden, El Rancho Exotica did not begin as a grand project. Rather, Knudsen recounts, “it was the natural outgrowth of my parents’ love of animals.” Dennis and Janell Knudsen began with a a few exotic birds when Jessica was in elementary school, “and it just grew from there,” she said.
After a few years, the family added a ring-tailed lemur, affectionately known as Gramps. After 20 years, the lemur still occupies the senior spot in the El Rancho menagerie, which includes capuchin monkeys and other small primates, giraffes, Bactrian camels, zebras, kangaroos, porcupines, pot-bellied pigs, wild turkeys, a rainforest greenhouse populated by tropical plants, amphibians and birds, ducks, geese — and a lone buffalo named Shag.
Over the years, the family learned which animals would best adapt to Southwest Kansas weather, Knudsen said. Camels and zebras, for example, handle winter’s extremes surprisingly well.
“We have stable shelters for them, but we rarely have to use the heaters,” she said. “Their coats are heavy enough, they stay comfortable in the elements.” The miniature Scottish bull, with its characteristic hoof-length coat, has also adjusted to life in Kansas.
When clients book catered events at El Rancho Exotica, guests may tour the animal displays, which are staffed by trained animal keepers. Because the Knudsens decided long ago not to acquire carnivorous or predatory animals, Jessica noted, the staff are on duty as much for the animals’ security as that of curious children.
It’s not unusual for a visitor who strolls the grounds to encounter peacocks or ducks. No one really knows how many fowl occupy El Rancho, Jessica noted, because it has become a kind of sanctuary. Wild ducks and geese use the property’s pond and wooded areas as a kind of migratory rest stop, and sometimes stay to raise their young. The arrival of a rare night heron delighted the Knudsens. Then there are the Easter refugees — white ducklings that were purchased as cute gifts, but rapidly wore out their welcome.
“People ask us to take unwanted animals for all sorts of reasons. That’s what happened with the buffalo. Shag was an orphan and needed a place to go, didn’t you?” she said with an affectionate pat on the flank of the 15-year-old, sugar cookie loving bison.
In a similar way, Knudsen and Mason hope Southwest Kansas residents will look at El Rancho Exotica as a comfort destination, a place that meets a need in the region.
“I feel this area needs different resources that will give people options,” she said, “and we have something to offer. They can come here and feel like they’ve gotten away from the ordinary and really experienced something special.”
In addition to events hosted at El Rancho Exotica, SJK Catering provides on-site services — which may include event planning, theme decor, music and entertainment and service staff — at clients’ homes or businesses for parties from 10 to 500 people. For information, contact Jessica Knudsen or Todd Mason at (620) 655-1773.
El Rancho Exotica offers educational field trips to view the animal exhibits for schools and youth groups only. Private tours are available for all other organizations. Prices begin at $4.50 for individual students and a minimum program fee of $50.00. For more information contact Janell or Jessica Knudsen at (620) 655-1773.