Why cowboy cook Kent Rollins still prefers an iron skillet and an open fire, and other questions answered in his new cookbook.
In a world that moves at a lightning pace, cowboy, chef, and storyteller Kent Rollins and his wife, Shannon, just want everybody to slow down and sit for a spell, and remember what life was like during simpler times, before 5G was a thing — heck, before 4G, and maybe even the internet. The chuck wagon cooking duo have just come out with their second cookbook, Faith, Family & The Feast: Recipes to Feed Your Crew From the Grill, Garden, and Iron Skillet (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which celebrates the food of the West and the South. It’s not great just because it’s filled with all their own original recipes, chuck wagon- and cowboy-tested with a generous helping of true-life campfire stories and poetry throughout. It’s the closest thing to feeling like you’re right there with them, drinking coffee out of an enamel cup around the crackling predawn fire, waiting for the flapjacks to be flipped and stacked on your plate.
We reached out to Rollins at his ranch in Hollis, Oklahoma, to find out more about why he thinks chuck wagon cooking and a slower, more relaxed way of putting a meal together are cowboy traditions that’ll never go out of style.
Cowboys & Indians: What do you love most about being a chuck wagon cook?
Kent Rollins: The view out my kitchen window, but our kitchen window isn’t like most. It looks out onto expansive prairies and pastures. We are blessed to get to experience sunrises and sunsets that the good Lord paints every day.
C&I: What’s the best meal you’ve ever cooked?
Rollins: Our Caveman Steak with a horseradish and white-wine chile sauce on a ranch in Oklahoma for some dear friends. We cooked the steak directly on a bed of coals in the ground. Grilling the steaks directly on the coals give a unique flavor and just goes to show you don’t need fancy gadgets to grill a great meal.
C&I: Speaking of gear, though, what piece of cooking equipment do you always pack for chuck wagon cooking?
Rollins: The coffee pot and cast iron are must-haves on the wagon. Coffee is always the first thing on in the morning and the last thing off at night. Cast-iron skillets and Dutch ovens hold up to the fire and add great flavor to food. We cook the same way ol’ Cookie did going down the trail in the 1800s.
C&I: What’s the biggest challenge with this type of cooking?
Rollins: We don’t cook in a controlled environment; we’re out in Mother Nature. Whatever she feels like throwing at you, you have to improvise and overcome ’cause those cowboys are counting on you. I’ve cooked in everything from hailstorms to 70 mph windstorms blowing dust. You never know what the weather will bring.
C&I: Any tips for getting and keeping a campfire really going?
Rollins: Making sure you have enough fuel is one of the biggest challenges when cooking over an open fire with wood for a crew. My favorite tool for starting a fire is a propane torch. You have to remember, this ain’t like turning a knob on the stove in the kitchen. You have to make sure you have enough coals to cook because they don’t just appear; you have to give them time to burn down. I like to keep a stack of wood in different sizes: larger wood to throw in the stove overnight or if I have time for it to burn down, and smaller wood that will burn up fast for a quicker coal when I need it.
C&I: Now that we’ve got a good fire going, what’s your favorite story to tell around a chuck wagon?
Rollins: Probably when I asked Shannon to marry me. I surprised her on a Southwest flight midair. I had the pilot announce that there was a cowboy onboard that had a very important question to ask her. I had written a poem and read it to her. She was so in shock I had to ask her twice before she said yes!
C&I: If you could have anybody to play around the campfire, who would it be, and what would they sing?
Rollins: Of course it would have to be “Wagon Wheel” by Darius Rucker or Old Crow Medicine Show.
C&I: What are some of your dream places to have a chuck wagon dinner in the West, and who’s invited?
Rollins: I used to guide elk hunters in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico, and I’d love to visit there again and set the wagon up. I would also like to camp at the national parks in Utah, because I’ve never been there, but it looks like great rugged country. Our two dogs, Bonehead and Duke, would be there as taste testers. I’d also like to invite some servicemen and -women and veterans to show our appreciation.
C&I: You beat Bobby Flay in a chicken-fried steak contest. What are three qualities of a good chicken-fried steak? What do people get wrong when they make it?
Rollins: Number one, the quality of the meat: Don’t get a gristly piece. Number two, the cut: I like it to come from the eye of the round, but top or bottom round also work. Number three: the crust. It needs to be thick and crispy and stay on the meat. A lot of folks have trouble with the crust sticking to the meat, but if you deep-fry it versus pan-frying it, it will stay on better.
C&I: You and your wife travel an average of 20,000 miles each year to cater to cowboys working on ranches. What’s your favorite road music?
Rollins: We do get some good windshield time, and we listen to a lot of different music. Shannon has got me listening to Lady Gaga! But I do like the old classics like Bob Wills, Don Williams, and Merle Haggard, to the more modern like Chris Stapleton. And don’t forget James Brown — he will get you in the mood for a happy dance!
C&I: How did you and your wife, Shannon, meet? How did you know she was the one?
Rollins: We met at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. At the time, she was in charge of the workshop I was teaching. I loved to see her smile, and her laugh was contagious. She ended up coming to one of my cooking schools and the wagon later on. When I saw her around the wagon, I realized not only is she beautiful and smart, but she is tough! She is my greatest inspiration and the love of my life. As I’ve said before, a man is only as strong as the woman who holds him, and I’m a very strong man.
C&I: What does she cook better than you?
Rollins: She is a very creative baker; I love her braided French bread. But she really surprised me when she came up with her banana pudding. You know, that’s a staple in the South at any family gathering, and hers is the best I’ve had.
C&I: Did you learn to cook from your mom? Is there a recipe in your new cookbook that especially reminds you of her?
Rollins: Yes, my mom was the greatest cook I have ever known. She had the talent and creativity to take a few simple ingredients and turn it into a feast to feed all us kids growing up. She taught me that good food brings folks together, to nourish not only the body but the heart and soul too. There are a lot of recipes that were inspired by her in the cookbook, but one of my favorites is her Cheesy Squash Bake casserole ’cause it came fresh from her garden and is a comfort-food classic.
C&I: At the end of a long day, what’s your favorite thing to eat — and drink — to relax? Where?
Rollins: I reckon my favorite thing to eat — and this may shock you — is good sushi. My favorite spot is just sitting on the front porch with our dogs and enjoying a good cup of coffee watching the sun rise or set.
C&I: What’s next for you?
Rollins: I think another book will be down the road. I would also like to host my own network cooking show, but right now we really enjoy creating content for our weekly YouTube show, Kent Rollins Cowboy Cooking. It’s been such a blessing watching it explode like it has, and it’s been a great way for us to share recipes each week. It also allows us to connect to our community in a way that we haven’t been able to do with TV.
C&I: If you weren’t a chuck wagon cook, what would you be?
Rollins: When I thought I was smart enough to go to school, I was going to be a veterinarian. But folks may not know this: On the wagon, the cook also has to be the doctor, dentist, and philosopher, among other things. So I get to practice on other things along with recipes. But I reckon I’d just be cowboying if I didn’t have the wagon.
For recipes from the Rollins …
Visit the chef online at kentrollins.com.
Photography: Images courtesy
From our April 2020 issue.