Though he’s traded in the branding iron for cast iron cookware, Kent Rollins has thoroughly lived and loved the cowboy life, and now he’s sharing it with diverse audiences that extend far beyond his native prairie.

Though he’s traded in the branding iron for cast iron cookware, Kent Rollins has thoroughly lived and loved the cowboy life, and now he’s sharing it with diverse audiences that extend far beyond his native prairie.

He still cooks for working ranches throughout the High Plains region, but he also presents grilling demos, makes routine television appearances and sells an illustrated cookbook.

Rollins grew up on a ranch in southwestern Oklahoma near the tiny town of Hollis, along the banks of the Red River.

“My mother taught me to cook when I was about 7 or 8 years old,” he recalled.
While working on ranches, he endured the cowboy chow that came with the territory.

“I ate off wagons since I was young,” he said. “Cowboy etiquette is you eat and you don’t complain, or you could be the next cook. I went about my business and didn’t think about it much.”

But when he got his turn with the hash knife and biscuit cutter, he made the most of it. By 1993, he had purchased a 1876 Studebaker wagon equipped with an old cook-stove named Bertha, and he’s been building up an increasingly successful cowboy cooking and catering business ever since.

“Cowboys respect me because I’ve been on both sides of the fire,” he said.
It’s likely they’re also pretty pleased with the grub. In his new cookbook, "A Taste of Cowboy: Ranch Recipes and Tales from the Trail," Rollins shows off the improvisational flair and savvy creativity he brings to his role as “cowboy cookie.”

“The recipes have all been tested by cowboys and by our beagle, so I guarantee them,” he grins. “There’s stuff I grew up with, sure, but there’s stuff there that we created that people wouldn’t think about, like an apricot grilled cheese. You don’t think they would go together but they do.”

Among the vivid photographs of cowboys at work on the range are some of the recipe favorites that helped put Rollins on the culinary map.

“There’s a recipe in the dessert section for a bread pudding with a whiskey cream sauce I really didn’t want to put in there. It’s something I worked hard on for a long time to achieve, but my wife convinced me to let it go. It’s probably my favorite dish if I had to cook something out of the book,” he explained.

Star turn

Rollins has transitioned from ranch hand and cowboy poet to something of a celebrity chef, and he did it by hitching his wagon to the modern phenomenon of television cooking shows, where he has proved to be an authentic and endearing spokesman for cowboys everywhere.

Chosen from among 2,000 applicants to be one of 16 contestants on the Food Network’s Chopped: Grillmaster episode, he made the finals after confronting mystery ingredients that included speculoos cookie butter, fennel bulb and the cowboy’s most dreaded scourge of them all: tofu.

Still, he managed to charm the celebrity chef judges by offering witty compositions along with disarmingly homespun humor.

“I’m not culinary, I couldn’t even spell culinary,” he said in a recent interview. “But when you cook like we do in Mother Nature’s kitchen, you learn to improvise with what you’ve got. You know somebody’s counting on you to eat, so you try to make it the best thing there is.”

That’s how he came up with his popular recipe for sparklin’ taters. When he found himself out on a remote ranch without any cooking oil, he decided to try frying up potatoes using a can of Sprite. It worked. In fact, the soda added a nice caramelizing effect.

Rollins has appeared on the CBS news magazine Sunday Morning, competed on NBC’s Food Fighters and contributes regularly to Western Horseman magazine.
His wife Shannon grew up in the “cow-town” of Elko, Nevada, and was helping to coordinate workshops for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, when the two first met. They continue to make frequent appearances there. (Elko’s storied event, which is under way this week, runs through Jan. 30.)

Increasingly, the couple find themselves thrust into the role of defending the beef industry against critics who have raised concerns about environmental impact, use of antibiotics and animal handling practices.

Fortunately, they have a vantage point from which to educate consumers about beef’s journey from pasture to plate.

“We’re cooking the beef, but we also see where it’s coming from and how it’s handled on the ranch,” Shannon said. “We’re not working for a packing plant, or a food distributor, we are at ground level. It’s nice to be that close to the production process and then to be working with different beef packing companies and feeding people on the other end. We get to see it every step of the way.”

Their Red River Ranch catering business is sponsored by National Beef and Certified Angus Beef, two companies “doing a great job at making the public understand that the cowboy is still out there taking care of the animals, and meat doesn’t just show up in a package at the supermarket,” Shannon says.

It’s a running joke that Shannon has expanded Rollins’ palate to include things like sushi and avocado. His surprisingly successful knack with tofu aside, however, he clarifies his cooking philosophy in a characteristic folksy drawl.

“Meat’s been around forever,” he said. “Ever since the good Lord put us out here, there’s been meat roaming the earth, and he meant for us to eat it. We live in a country where we can eat whatever we want, and I’m glad we have that choice. But if someone hires us, we’re going to feed them beef, I promise you. That’s how we were raised, and that’s what we stand behind.”