Making a successful business out of cooking takes more than just skill in the kitchen. Let's face it - the distance between kitchen and table might as well be a mile rather than a few steps if the front of the house isn't managed properly. Here in the Vail Valley, we are fortunate to have in our midst a place where culinary and management talents intersect. That place is Zino Ristorante at The Riverwalk at Edwards, along the banks of the Eagle River.When I arrived here in winter 2003, Zino Ristorante was nothing more than a fond memory. Riverhouse had already replaced Zino in the cavernous space. The chatter was that legendary restaurateur Kevin Clair wanted to scale back and focus on his iconic Vail restaurant, Sweet Basil. But Riverhouse soon closed, giving way to Frites, then Rick & Kelly's. All the while, I heard lamentations such as "I wish Kevin Clair would bring back Zino." And he did. That's where I went for my story.
For numerous reasons, I didn't interview Clair for this article, so please forgive any holes that might appear as you read about his young, talented partners in Zino's rebirth. Since Clair is prominent in many successful culinary careers, that's an experience in itself. I spent two nights working at Zino and two hours interviewing his young partners. This is their story - that of two culinary couples Clair cleverly backed to resurrect the beloved Zino brand. This business is not for the faint of heart, nor for someone averse to long hours, sacrifice, heartbreak and physical labor. Unlike many restaurant staff members who seek employment here as a means to feed their skiing and snowboarding habits, for those who run the establishments, it's their lives. Their priorities are vastly different. Giuseppe and Alisha Bosco and Nick and Bekah Haley are four such people.
In 2008, Giuseppe was the general manager of Campo di Fiori in Vail. Born in Frankfurt to Italian parents, his path to Vail was a long journey. From age 15, when he was working in a restaurant's dish pit while attending high school in Italy, to finally landing a job in L'Originale Alfredo di Roma Ristorante in Disney's Epcot in 1999, Giuseppe's thirst for knowledge was never quenched. Summers working cruise ships in the Mediterranean, offseasons in Weissbaden, Germany, and long winters in Switzerland stoked the fire in Giuseppe's belly to pursue a restaurant management career. Giuseppe joined Campo di Fiori in Denver in 2004. He spent a short time with the restaurant in Aspen, but settled in Vail as Campo's general manager. During his previous life of near-servitude at the Suvretta House in St. Moritz, Switzerland, he learned to ski. Vail seemed perfect for improving those skills. One night, Alisha Quinn walked into the restaurant and into his life. By September 2007, the couple married. Giuseppe can easily rattle off the date, time and place of their wedding; the weather that day; and even what wine they drank. He'll even tell you the table where she sat - with her date - on the night they met. Table 37. Such is his devotion for Alisha. It's a good thing they have such a bond, for this business can be a cruel taskmaster, tearing apart the relationships of those working together under the same roof. Life was good. He was married to the love of his life, who worked in the same business as a hostess at Sweet Basil, and good friends around him, including chef Nick Haley. He was living the dream. In 2008, the phone rang. Clair, a regular at Campo, had a business proposition for Giuseppe. But silence followed the call until early 2010, when, in the midst of a punishing recession, Clair offered Giuseppe the chance of lifetime - ownership in a restaurant as one of Clair's partners. Clair didn't get an immediate answer. What good is a dream's realization if it tears apart another cherished aspect of his life? After a week discussing the challenges they faced with the venture, Giuseppe and Alisha accepted the offer. By June 14, 2010, Zino was open for business.
Although Giuseppe was the clear choice for general manager, the kitchen staff was still uncertain. The executive chef position was initially filled, but Zino needed a chef de cuisine. Giuseppe's first call after accepting the offer was to his colleague at Campo di Fiori, Nick Haley. He urged Haley to apply. Haley, born in Saskatchewan, Canada, and raised in Denver, trained in Paris and Piemonte, Italy, before settling in Vail. His passion for cooking is rooted in his childhood, preparing rhubarb, strawberries and East European dishes with his mother and grandmother. Haley, like so many chefs I've interviewed, fondly recalls the maternal influences in his careers. In Haley's case, it was strong, given his mother's own unrealized dream to become a chef. As sous chef at Campo, he was melding those experiences, developing a style he would one day showcase. That day was approaching, but still in the distance. Haley's lack of management experience kept him from the prized position of executive chef, but within a year, the gods smiled. In July 2011, Haley became not only Zino's executive chef, but co-owner as well. As Haley said, "Everything else up to that point was practice." The past defined how he wanted to run the kitchen, treat his staff and, just as importantly, be treated by them. His culinary style, born of his love of Italian cuisine, would now be Zino's style.
Attention turned to the front of the house. Despite dire economic conditions, it was more difficult to find experienced hires. Along came Haley's girlfriend, Bekah Barton, who worked as a server at Larkspur, then Campo, but who sought a management opportunity. At Zino, she found it. Upon opening, Barton worked tirelessly as the only experienced server, and within two weeks became the dining room manager. Now married, the Haleys work five of the seven open nights across the counter from one another. He cooks alongside his talented team as she expedites orders, maintaining a constant flow of dishes along the restaurant's lifeline from kitchen to table. Alisha Bosco spends her days as Zino's operations manager, but on evenings you'll find her working beside her husband, Giuseppe, and hostess Carol Maunz, welcoming guests, plugging service holes and keeping everyone happy - an Olympian multitasker! Though he stays behind the scenes in day-to-day operations, Clair is omnipresent. His creativity, business sense and, most importantly, mentoring of young restaurant professionals are all on display through the restaurant's success. Clair, with the two culinary couples, successfully created a place local residents love and visitors in the know seek. All four members of these two culinary couples are important cogs in the wheel that turns Zino's success. Next week, come behind the scenes again.
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is a passionate gastronome. For more background information on her "Behind the Scenes" series, check www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to email@example.com.