Vail Daily column: A confluence of haute cuisine and Beaver Creek history
December 31, 2013
BEAVER CREEK — Months have passed since I ventured behind the scenes into a restaurant’s kitchen. I couldn’t let 2013 end without once again donning my pink chef’s jacket and bright flowery clogs to work on the other side of the kitchen door. My target — Mirabelle at Beaver Creek.
Streets, parks and buildings in Beaver Creek and Avon bear the names Avondale, Offerson, Townsend and Nottingham. The origins of these names are buried in the rich history of the valley’s agrarian economy that existed long before the first chairlift was built eight miles east in Vail. That rich history is tied to a humble farmhouse at the confluence of Beaver Creek and the Eagle River. Located just inside the gates of Beaver Creek resort, the farmhouse is now a restaurant: Mirabelle.
In 1881, George Townsend built the farmhouse that many believe was the first in Beaver Creek. No doubt, the current structures on his ranch would shock Townsend. Subsequent owners — John Howard, Gulling Offerson and Willis Nottingham — each put their mark on it with renovations and additions. In 1981, the building expanded southward with completion of a new addition — a commercial kitchen and all the spaces needed for a restaurant. Legendary Vail chef-restaurateur Luc Meyer and his wife Liz opened Mirabelle at Beaver Creek in 1982. After 32 years, the restaurant remains a favored spot for haute cuisine adventurers.
Today, Mirabelle is in the capable hands of certified Belgian Master Chef Daniel Joly — the only such certified chef in America since 2000 — and his wife Nathalie. The couple purchased Mirabelle in 1999, seven years after Chef Daniel came to the Belgian-French restaurant as it’s chef-manager.
Nathalie commands the front of the house — three separate, intimate dining rooms and a welcoming parlor that serves as the bar — while her husband runs the compact, efficient kitchen. It’s an ultimate live-work environment. The Jolys live upstairs with their two sons Raphael and Sebastian and have a short commute down the stairs to their restaurant. Throughout the year, the Jolys welcome guests from across the globe to dine in their historic home.
Into the kitchen
On the Wednesday before Christmas, I arrived under gray skies shortly after 2 p.m. The small number of reservations forecast a quiet evening, probably one of the final ones before the onslaught of Christmas snow-seekers.
During the offseason, Nathalie orchestrated the restaurant’s facelift. Most notably, she removed the wine cabinet in one corner of the parlor, creating a new arrangement that provides a comfortable environment for enjoying aperitifs in the warmth of the refurbished fireplace. Mirabelle’s collection of precious French wines is now housed in a small, but stylish, glass wine room that replaced the coat closet. It provides a more intriguing and welcoming stroll to the main dining room. Wooden sliding doors reminiscent of the original building’s era replaced the heavy curtain between the main and front dining rooms. A fresh coat of paint and natural wood paneling downstairs in the restrooms contribute to the restaurant’s fresh ambiance. Minor changes in the whole scheme of things, but profound all the same.
The Mirabelle kitchen is relatively small in comparison with others I’ve experienced. Within one rectangular room, a pastry chef, line cooks, sous chefs, dishwasher and Chef Daniel work each day to serve as many as 200 guests on a busy holiday night.
That afternoon, the action in the kitchen belied the low number of bookings. It was more the high energy of the hours before a big night. Soon, time would become the chefs’ enemy once the holiday feeding frenzy began, so like squirrels before winter the Mirabelle kitchen team was busily prepping for what, by all indications, looked to be the best Christmas season in years.
I scanned the room and took in the activity. To my left, sous chef Johann van Niekerk was up to his elbows cracking open Maine lobsters that had been broiled in vegetable stock. Nothing’s wasted. The remaining cephalothoraces would transform water into a flavorful reduction used for Joly’s lobster bisque, a popular winter dish.
The tall South African chef peeled off his glove, shook my hand and welcomed me to their world of heat, sweat, sumptuous aromas and sights. He replaced his glove and dove back into the growing pile of lobster bodies. I’d be fibbing to say I wasn’t a bit nervous, so it was a kind, appreciated gesture that eased my nervousness.
To my right, Kotchakorn Wirunchonlapan (aka Korn) intently prepped vegetables for her turkey Thai curry family meal. Later, she meticulously shaped tiny rounds of crab salad for the crab three ways appetizer. The combination of the blue crab salad, crabcake and crab eggroll create an appetizer that pleases the eyes before the palate gets its opportunity to help the brain discern the synergy of flavors and textures.
In her tiny spot next to one of two windows, my supervisor for the evening, pastry chef Ingrid Vidalon, carefully wrapped thick blocks of gingerbread cookie dough that she would use during the holidays in a tempting migrandise plate, the grand finale of any Mirabelle meal. Prep cook Adam Goetsch shared the same tiny space with her.
For the next three hours, I worked with Vidalon in the small space hopefully helping her. Although a bit cramped, the pastry counter was a perfect venue to watch the kitchen activity kitchen without becoming an unwanted obstacle.
Andes to Rockies
Vidalon arrived at Mirabelle from Peru on Dec. 2. In Quito, high in the Andes, Vidalon had been preparing to open her own pastry shop, but decided to come north instead. The gentle, somewhat timid chef confessed altitude was no issue for her, but she was struggling with our cream. It sounds strange, but this wasn’t the first time I’d heard a pastry chef find American dairy products difficult to use.
I recently interviewed pastry chef Silvanna Villegas, owner of highly acclaimed Masa in Bogota, Colombia. Villegas experienced difficulties with ingredients, but in reverse, when she returned to Bogota after studies and work in New York. She explained the differences in sugar, flour, eggs and diary products between Colombia and New York. No doubt, these differences exist between Peru and Colorado as well. The higher fat content in American cream and butter create some challenges that I’m certain Vidalon will conquer with Joly’s guidance.
Scratch cooking is the name of the game at Mirabelle where Joly optimizes the short growing season to cultivate much of the produce and herbs he uses. Even locally raised Duroc hogs and tilapia find their way onto Joly’s menus.
It’s not just in his savories Joly demands homemade perfection. Like her predecessors, Vidalon creates bread, cakes, tarts, ice cream and other mouthwatering confections in the pastry corner. Today, her task list includes rolls for the breadbaskets, chocolate chip cookies (more chunk than chip) and pistachio ice cream.
Come back next week to cook with us and to experience more of life behind the scenes in Mirabelle’s kitchen. Make certain you bring your appetite!