Behind the scenes at a Beaver Creek kitchen | VailDaily.com
Suzanne Hoffmannewsroom@vaildaily.comVAIL CO, Colorado

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Behind the scenes at a Beaver Creek kitchen

HL Splendido dinner 1 KA 1-27-12

Have you ever wondered what really goes on behind the scenes at guest chef benefit dinner for 100 at a fine-dining restaurant? I did, so I joined Chef David Walford’s team at Splendido at the Chateau in Beaver Creek on Friday to experience first hand a day in the life of a world-class restaurant. What I came away with was a keen appreciation for the hard work and dedication of Walford and his team in their constant quest to achieve perfection in every aspect of the Splendido dining experience. My day at Splendido started at noon and lasted until 10 in the evening. But the chefs were already in the restaurant by mid-morning, hard at work prepping not only the evening’s dinner but also the staff dinner known as the “family meal” and dishes to be served the following night. Although he’s an artist in the kitchen, creating beautiful dishes of perfectly layered flavors, Splendido Owner and Executive Chef Walford’s day starts off early with one of life’s simple pleasures – toast and good coffee. Chef de Cuisine Brian Ackerman is more of a pancakes and waffles guy, as he starts his days at 6 a.m., on average five hours after his head hits the pillow following a long day into the night working in the Splendido kitchen. It is in the company of these two culinary artists and their loyal and trusted team of chefs, line cooks and cleaning staff that I spent 10 intriguing – and fulfilling – working hours, as they prepared and executed a benefit dinner as part of the Beaver Creek Food & Wine Weekend. Guest chef Marc Murphy and his assistant, Executive Chef David Nichols, from Landmarc in New York City, teamed with Splendido for a creative Mediterranean-inspired menu of five hors d’oeuvres and three courses paired with Schweiger Vineyards wines. The Splendido team prepared the hors d’oeuvres and dessert. Murphy and Nichols produced the first course of goat cheese and asparagus terrine and the main course of herb-breadcrumb encrusted grilled Colorado lamb chops with mash chickpea and escarole.

When I arrived, Walford immediately outfitted me in the kitchen uniform of a chef’s jacket and long apron. Then it was a quick tour of the maze of storage rooms and coolers below the “main stage” of this splendid culinary theater, the kitchen and dining room of Splendido. Up to the kitchen and onto my first task of cutting a block of panisse, a Mediterranean specialty primarily made of chickpeas, into nearly 200 small wafers. Walford patiently showed me the method of cutting the panisse that I later fried and cooled. This was the base of Chef Walford’s invention of the day, tuna tartare nicoise, a simply delicious combination of raw yellowfin tuna, shallots, preserved lemon peel, fried nicoise olives and capers and spices and herbs, all mixed, molded atop a fried panisse disc and finished with fresh haricots verts, watercress, finely chopped egg whites, bottarga (cured flathead mullet roe) and toasted pine nuts. It was amazing that this delectable hors d’oeuvre was created and served in the same day, to rave reviews from the diners. And it was only one of five stellar appetizers Walford and the Splendido team created. With each task I was given, Walford patiently taught me various techniques. Finely dicing vegetables to 1⁄8-inch cubes creates what is known as a brunoise. The proper way to cut chives – not so easy as one would think – must be done with a correct sawing, not chopping action, and a sharp knife! And who knew that perfect boiled eggs can be achieved by first inserting a push-pin into the “fat end” of an egg, allowing sulphur gas to escape during boiling? During the day, I had the pleasure of also working alongside other Splendido professionals. Sous Chef Quintin Wicks showed me the seemingly mundane, but important, method of correctly seasoning yellowfin tuna before it was seared. I was amazed at what sprinkling from a few extra inches of height and using the right salt – in this case, sea salt – can do to evenly disperse the seasoning on fish or meat. From noon until 5:30 p.m., I worked across from Chef de Partie Nick Lawson, who during that time created pate de foie gras and Perigord truffle sandwiches. At his own relatively quiet station, patissier Alex Daly worked meticulously preparing from scratch (of course) the evening’s dessert of warm farina custard, honey-poached apples, candied walnuts and frozen yogurt with a salted caramel syrup.

After nearly eight hours of prepping, guests arrived and it was showtime. Once the nine-member Splendido kitchen team successfully sent out their five hors d’oeuvres to the delight of diners, it was time to support Murphy and Nichols in plating their two courses. Although in reality it is an assembly line, the final act in a kitchen that brings together the separate elements of a dish is akin to a well-choreographed ballet. The “chef-conductors” assign each person a task that when performed at a rapid, precise pace appears as though it was choreographed. From the handing of plates to the first in the assembly line to a final wiping before serving, each task is crucial for presenting in the most beautiful way possible the fruits of hours of hard work. After the last plate of the course is sent out, it’s then time for a drink of water and cleanup before the next act of the culinary ballet is repeated. The final act was the assembly of the six elements of Chef Daly’s dessert. It was only when the last dessert was whisked to the table that the electric atmosphere in the kitchen subsided, deep breaths were taken and congratulatory toasts were made. It was all done and had been a great success. But already Chef Daly was turning to the next day’s desserts and the process of cleaning the kitchen long since had begun. What I observed during the day were not the condescending or barking chefs glorified in TV programs, but instead highly professional team members with incredible respect and patience for one another. Such a team dynamic is needed to achieve excellence. With Chef Walford’s patient coaching, based on skills developed in more than 30 years of culinary work, that’s just what is achieved at Splendido. Suzanne Hoffman is an attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chane des Rtisseurs. Email comments about this story to cschnell@vaildaily.com.