In a world where talented, experienced and media-savvy chefs are consistently in the mainstream television rotation, it's easy to forget it takes years of standing in the kitchen, feet aching and eyelids drooping, learning and relearning techniques that become the foundation of any chef's culinary arsenal. But long days, longer nights and a passion for food are a requirement for chefs at the beginning of their epicurean education, as evidenced by local culinary apprentices Aaron Cousineau and Jon Palacios. The two just returned from San Antonio, where they competed in the Jeunes Commis (young chefs) Rotisseur Competition, an event sponsored by Chaine des Rotisseurs. They were able to attend because they took first (Cousineau) and second (Palacios) for Vail in the gastronomic group's first-ever local competition at the Art Institute of Denver. Vail Resorts Signature Clubs provided funds for the duo's travel expenses to San Antonio.
"This is like the Oscars for these kids," said Suzanne Hoffman-LeBlanc, the "bailli," or leader, of the Vail Chaine chapter, known as the Baillaige de Vail.
"They're beginners - they're students," said David Walford, chef-owner of Splendido at the Chateau and one of the Baillaige de Vail's professional members. "I give them big applause for even showing up and doing the work. They're doers, not just talkers. They both have good potential."
"They're beginners, but they have a lot of courage," Hoffman-LeBlanc said.
The Chaine des Rotisseurs is the world's oldest international gastronomic society. In 1248, King Louis IX decided to organize France's trades and guilds in order to develop young apprentices and improve the technical knowledge across the board. Included were goose roasters, which evolved into meat roasters. It was revived in 1950 as a way to help bring back the culinary culture of France after the war. The first U.S chapter was started in 1960; Julia Child, Alfred Hitchcock and Ronald Reagan were all Chaine members at one time. The organization now has chapters in 70 countries. According to the Chaine's official literature, it's "devoted to preserving the camaraderie and pleasures of the table and to promoting excellence in all areas of the hospitality arts."
That translates to local parties, regional gatherings, national conventions and an international network of foodie-friendly advice and recommendations, as well as competitions and scholarships for student sommeliers and chefs.
"It's very important to us that we get involved in culinary education," Hoffman-LeBlanc said.
"I used to think the Chaine was a supper club - a fraternity of gourmands but kind of boring," said Walford, who often cooked for them at his restaurant but didn't join until a couple of years ago. "But the Chaine now is more inclusive - more active in the community."
Both Cousineau and Palacios are culinary students at Colorado Mountain College, as well as employee apprentices at two of Beaver Creek's fine-dining restaurants.
"For the last three weeks of training, their days started at 6:15 a.m., when they boarded the cats for their on-mountain jobsites," Hoffman-LeBlanc explained. "They attended classes, and they practiced several nights a week, often until 11 p.m."
Practices followed the official competition format and included opening a "mystery box" of ingredients that must be used, taking a half hour to plan a menu and cooking a three-course meal for four people in three hours. They then had 30 minutes to plate and serve their creations, after which they received feedback and advice. Heather Weems, of CMC, was a tireless coach and was helped by the director of CMC's culinary arts program in Edwards, Todd Rymer.
"The students really worked hard," Rymer said. "Everybody did."
Local chefs Walford, Kirk Weems of Allie's Cabin and Richard Beichner of the Sonnenalp all worked with the candidates on their fine-dining culinary skills, while Paul Ferzacca of La Tour provided feedback after their practices.
"I learned that I'm able to create menus with a box of random ingredients," Cousineau said about his experience with the competition.
Cousineau works at Beano's Cabin on Beaver Creek Mountain. When Heather Weems told him about the competition, his interest was piqued.
"I thought it would be a good way to challenge myself," he said. "I've always wanted to be a chef."
Though he didn't win the regional competition, he's glad he competed.
"I definitely learned different skills and worked with different products that I wouldn't have otherwise," he explained.
Palacios, too, works on Beaver Creek Mountain, but on the Bachelor Gulch side at Zach's cabin. He came to the CMC program through the Job Corps in San Diego.
"I learned a lot," Palacios said about the competition. He experienced a couple of technical difficulties in San Antonio, and wound up not plating his entree. "Even though I didn't finish or perform the best I could, everyone was so supportive and encouraging. The Chaine is a very positive organization, with a lot of good ideals."
The mystery box in San Antonio contained shrimp, red snapper, quail, pork loin, cilantro, grapefruit, purple potatoes and corn. Cousineau created a grilled shrimp and snapper appetizer with cilantro-basil cous cous. He then braised the pork loin in a quail stock, and made potato-corn hash. He finished with a chocolate tart with chocolate mousse. Palacios pan seared the snapper and made a shrimp mousse with a white wine cream sauce for his appetizer. He intended to make a pork stuffing for the quail and serve it with a oven-roasted corn and grapefruit salsa. He could picture a little flower of thinly sliced purple potatoes setting off the salsa.
"The menu was promising," he said ruefully.
Nevertheless, it was a good step for a student chef who's trying to push himself to be better.
"I've trained hard, and I want to come back and try again," Palacios said.
Which is just the sort of dedication the Chaine wants to inspire.
For more information on the Bailliage de Vail, visit http://bailliages2.chaineus.org/vail.