Behind the Scenes column: Rounding up great chefs for Roundup River Ranch | VailDaily.com
Suzanne Hoffman
newsroom@vaildaily.com
VAIL CO, Colorado

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Behind the Scenes column: Rounding up great chefs for Roundup River Ranch

Special to the Daily

Editor’s note: This is the first story in a two-part series. Look for the second part in Sunday’s High Life section.

It’s been my experience that chefs love to work together for a cause. People love to eat good food. Chefs love to design and prepare it. Chefs and donors are perfect ingredients in the recipe for a successful fundraising experience.

And such a “recipe” was prepared on Aug. 18, at the Roundup River Ranch on Colorado River Road, seven miles north of Dotsero. A group of some of the regions most talented – and quite generous – chefs created the Grateful Harvest dinner for 275 festive diners. In the fading amber light of a pre-autumn evening, supporters of the camp’s mission of providing a place where children with chronic and life-threatening illnesses can enjoy free year-round camp experiences came together to wine, dine, learn and donate.

Fundraising banquets are catnip for me. I love the energy and the challenge, particularly when events take place away from chefs’ home turf. That’s when they really shine. Trent’s Cookhouse kitchen was not built to prepare and plate a five-course meal for 275, but the team of chefs successfully transformed it into a fine dining kitchen.

Assembling a Harvest Dinner

Upon arrival, the chefs quickly staked out their spots and prepared their stations. Each chef prepared an hors d’oeuvre. When the food began flowing from the kitchen, it was a nonstop stream of full trays out, empty ones back; a great sign of a chef’s success in pleasing palates. While each team of chefs worked on their hors d’oeuvres, Chef Kelly Liken and her assistant Tyler Hansen made fast work of preparing her course – heirloom tomato and Olathe sweet corn salad with a Parmesan vinaigrette, shaved red onion and fine herbs. Finally, after feeling somewhat useless for more than an hour as the self-sufficient chefs set up, I was put to work.

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Liken is no stranger to these sorts of events and her generosity has manifested itself on the tables of many fundraisers in our community. Her graciousness and patience with me obviously came from the same place where her largesse resides. Amazing how cutting two crates of baby heirloom tomatoes amongst professionals can delight me. The simple pleasures of life.

To plate this harvest-fresh creation in such a small area, salad plates were quickly dealt like cards in a poker game and placed eight to a tray. Every available space in the kitchen’s “business end” was used as Liken, Hansen and Chef Jordan Goncharoff of HomeChefs of Vail, worked in synch to plate salads. Goncharoff is a veteran restaurant chef and sommelier and is now a highly successful private chef. On this night, he stepped away from cooking to volunteer as expediter (expo) and kitchen coordinator.

Before diners came in, Liken’s salad was dropped – which means “placed” on the table, not dropped on the floor – and attention turned to the first hot course, La Tour’s Chef Paul Ferzacca’s Colorado wild mushroom-crusted halibut. This course required a bit longer “assembly line” given the dish had three elements. Chefs lined up on both sides of the line, each with a specific assigned task. Ferzacca prepared one “demo” plate to serve as a model for how the dish should look. Once the assembly line cranked up, there was no stopping until all diners were served.

Like all well-oiled machines that can go offline, the flow of plates occasionally slowed to plate special dishes addressing dietary restrictions. Ferzacca, like all the chefs, was well prepared to serve vegans, vegetarians and diners with food allergies. But, as is so often the case, not all issues were announced to servers and some plates bounced back. Indulge me, please, while I stand on my soapbox. Chefs aspire to provide perfect dining experiences for all, including those with food issues. So, it’s a great idea when making a reservation or when seated to inform the kitchen of your restrictions. It truly is important to ensuring chefs meet your needs and keep their kitchens running efficiently.

‘Funnels of communication’

For the fish course, my job was akin to a running back taking the handoff from the quarterback, in this case Goncharoff, as I took and in turn handed off loaded trays to servers. Goncharoff on the kitchen side carefully wiped away spills on plates and checked that all elements were assembled correctly. Gareth Heyman of event planner MorEvents, managed the service side, insuring tables were served in the proper order and special requests sent to the right diners. Heyman’s title is “Wizard of Everything.” To be successful at his job, he has to be.

The team of Goncharoff and Heyman formed the glue that held the operation together. Talented chefs can concoct beautiful culinary creations, but the distance between kitchen and table can be a minefield requiring careful negotiation. Expediters, in this case Goncharoff, are “funnels of communication” between servers and kitchen. As Goncharoff explained, “you can’t have 10 servers calling out to five chefs during a rush.” It’s a recipe for disaster. Heyman was front-of-the-house manager who informed Goncharoff when diners were seated, when all were served and what food issues needed attention. When diners are seated, the metaphorical bell rings, signaling time to plate and serve.

A favorite Colorado steakhouse, Elway’s, provided the entree. Executive Chef Tyler Wiard came up from Denver to team with Chef Shawn Cubberly of Elway’s in Vail. Their dish, chargrilled USDA prime tri tip over Colorado hash browns, garlic wilted quinoa greens topped with mountain crawfish Hollandaise sauce, presented the night’s biggest plating challenge. Earlier, Cubberly grilled the meat to perfection out back while Wiard made a few gallons of Hollandaise sauce. The other elements had been prepped in their home kitchen and it all came together beautifully. All hands were on deck as the chefs – with me this time – manned the assembly line.

Now it was time for dessert. For this course, Four Seasons’ Executive Chef Jason Harrison and his Pastry Chef Rachelle Hyder were the perfect choice. In February, I worked with Harrison in the 12,000 square foot Four Seasons kitchen. Now, I watched as the two chefs skillfully worked in a small, high traffic zone area in the small kitchen. All the while, Harrison displayed his usual jovial personality that makes working with him so delightful. Their creation rounded out the harvest theme: Palisade Farm peaches (prepared sous vide) with goat milk panna cotta over Flame’s granola – gluten free, of course – with Durango wildflower honey. From their tiny corner, they now spread plates along the line and on the counter as we added the final elements. Truly an exclamation point at the end of that culinary sentence!

I enjoyed the evening on so many levels: the ability to work again with Goncharoff and Harrison, finally working with Liken and Ferzacca, and meeting Wiard and Cubberly who are now in my “experiential research” crosshairs. Most rewarding, was the opportunity to blend my passion for writing with my belief in Roundup River Ranch’s mission. No doubt staff, donors and campers are all grateful for the harvest creations these generous chefs donated to make dreams come true.

Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to cschnell@vaildaily.com.