A big advantage of writing about restaurants from my own work behind the scenes is my ability to experience the kitchen firsthand, not merely through an interview. My day at The 10th on Vail Mountain amongst talented young culinary professionals ranks high on my list of experiences.
One can arrive at The 10th on foot from Gondola One or skis from any one of many slopes of varying difficulty dropping into Mid-Vail. I left my skis at home and opted for the warm comfort of the gondola on that blustery, snowy day. After braving the elements and skiers zipping past, The 10th was a welcome warm refuge.
Zehren and Associates designed The 10th. They accomplished a rare harmonious combination of what is best described as “mountain style” and modern. The warmth of stone and wood blends well with sleek, modern touches, producing an environment that is anything but sterile and cold. Although the restaurant is quite large, it still has a welcoming ambiance, thanks in no small part to expansive windows that offer all diners beguiling views of mountains and slopes.
Glass remains a common architectural theme on the south side of the restaurant where the bar with its fireplace and cozy seating looks out onto the apres patio and the Look Ma black diamond run above.
Passing through swinging doors into the back of the house is to step into another world. Except for executive chef Vishwatej Nath’s office, it’s a windowless space where time’s passage is measured by the arrival and departure of lunch and dinner guests, not by the amount of sunlight in the room. It’s a place where seven days a week — sometimes with graveyard shifts — black and white clad young culinary professionals bring to life Nath’s creative culinary vision.
The a.m. sous chef, Jason Boyle from Beaumont, Texas, no doubt drew the short straw since Nath assigned me to him. Thank heaven for Boyle’s delightful, kind demeanor and, most of all, his patience.
At my small station next to the expediter, my job was to complete the daily prep list of garnishes including parsley, chives and pico de gallo. Unfortunately, I never made it to the pico. I think I flunked garnish prep 101, as you shall see.
Parsley may be one of the world’s most popular herbs, but it’s also one of the most underrated. When this relative of celery is there, no one really takes note of it, but omit it and the dish loses something. A diner might not give much thought to the lovely bright green splash of color garnishing his or her plate of piping hot truffle fries, but the fries would lose an important contrasting color, diminishing the presentation, albeit the taste will still knock your socks off. As it so happens, this flavonoid rich garnish is also very healthy.
Boyle and I went shopping in the walk-in and took three “small” bunches of parsley. I put small in quotation marks because, once freed from its wire restraint, the bunch seemingly tripled in size.
On my early behind the scenes experiences, I learned prepping efficiency from stellar professionals such as David Walford of Splendido in Beaver Creek and Thomas Salamunovich of Larkspur in Vail. Finish one task before moving to the next. Don’t peel one potato, cut it up and then another. That may be less monotonous, but it’s highly inefficient. For parsley, my first step was picking leaves. In my home kitchen, I never pondered how many leaves there are in a bunch of parsley. A lot, as it turns out.
Then came my upper body exercise for the day — mincing my mountain of parsley leaves. When Walford taught me the finer points of mincing parsley, I only had one bunch to chop and he trusted me with his incredibly sharp knife to accomplish the task. My 12-inch Wusthof chef’s knife is awesome, although when I’m tired it can feel like a machete, but it wasn’t as sharp as Walford’s gorgeous knife that made the job easier and quicker.
Chop chop. Fluff up the pile. Change direction. Chop chop some more, and more until it’s finely minced. Time flew by and lunch service was in full swing. I wasn’t exactly burning up prepping speed records and my arthritic hands protested. Now I know why I’m always the oldest in the commercial kitchens I should have sharpened my knife first. When next you see a garnish, raise a glass to the poor cook who had to prep it.
Now onto the chives. I hope I’m not boring you, but in restaurants like The 10th it’s the little things that matter. Again, back to chef Walford who taught me to respect chives and not bruise this delicate, also underrated, herb. Chef Nath showed me the thickness he needed and gave me some useful pointers on chopping them. Somehow, I must have blanked out when he showed me the thickness — or shall I say “thinness” given how tiny his pieces were. Despite having a sample to look at, I produced a pint of chives suitable not for garnish, but for making chive oil. At least they weren’t thrown away.
In the end, I managed to prep two useable pints. Or perhaps Chef was just being charitable when he approved them. Whichever, I had burned up my time in the kitchen and it was time for me to go. Mind you, there were many distractions including a bowl of right-out-of-the-fryer truffle fries cook Brandon Running Wolf prepared for me.
I left behind an opportunity to help with some interesting preps for the Valentine’s Day menu. Perhaps I’ll be able to redeem myself when I return for dinner service. The fact I was invited back is a step in the right direction.
Made to Order
I don’t want to leave The 10th without describing one of their most popular lunchtime dishes — truffle fries. I alluded to this worthy sin before, but I believe it’s important to mention how these homemade fries are prepared. Each day 200 to 250 pounds of Russet potatoes are washed, cut into strips with a French fry cutter, blanched at 300 degrees F, cooled in a blast chiller, then fried to order at 350 degrees until golden brown and delicious. With the bar and restaurant able to serve as many as 800 guests, cooks like Running Wolf are continually cranking out these sticks of starchy scrumptiousness during lunch service.
Hot, crispy, made-to-order fries are delicious, but Nath transcends mere deliciousness with his addition of black truffles mixed in Maldon salt. A sprinkling of salt mixture, grated Parmesan cheese, white truffle essence — not too much, just enough — and, of course, the chopped parsley finishes the dish, delighting the eyes, nose and palate.
The hand’s down most popular lunchtime dish is the heirloom chicken and pheasant pot pie. Each week approximately 200 diners polish off this caviar of comfort foods. Everything, from the winter root vegetables, to the pheasant, sage cream and pastry is made in-house.
Either of these dishes or any of the others on Nath’s tempting menu are a wonderful addition to a day on Vail Mountain.