Eat This Week: Maria Busato, Sweet Basil sous chef, wins Colorado Chef of the Year award
Maria Busato, sous chef at Sweet Basil, received the 2020 Colorado Chef of the Year award from the Colorado Restaurant Association, the state’s leading trade organization for the foodservice industry. Nominated by her colleagues at Sweet Basil, Busato is humbled to receive the honor, which is a nod to her resilience in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I didn’t sit still when everything was closed and in quarantine. I created the finish at home meal kits, so people could have a taste of Sweet Basil at home,” she said.
Originally from Brazil, Busato came to Vail 10 years ago to pursue her culinary dream. After a few years in Washington state, she returned and accepted a position at Sweet Basil. From there, she received an opportunity to work as Mountain Standard’s sous chef, and then she moved back over to Sweet Basil to work as the sous chef there.
The Vail Daily spoke with Busato about her culinary career, her favorite cooking shows and what it means to receive this award. Below are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Vail Daily: Tell me a little bit about like your culinary background, and how you ended up with Sweet Basil.
Maria Busato: My whole entire life, I was always cooking with my mom at home, eating at restaurants and watching culinary TV shows. I’m from Brazil. Food was always involved in everything in my life. That pretty much helped shape me. I decided to go to environmental engineering school, much because, you know, I wanted to please my parents. And then after about two or three years in engineering school, I was like, ‘nope, that’s it.’ I convinced my grandma to pay for my culinary school back in Brazil. I was going to culinary school at night, and then I got a restaurant job in the morning. I spent about two years doing that. And then the opportunity came for me to travel abroad.
VD: So that’s where Vail comes in.
MB: I had never seen snow in my life. I did not know at all what the mountain life would be. It was something very exciting, because I was 20 years old and ready to get out of Brazil, and be a little bit more independent. I moved straight to Vail, 10 years ago exactly. I lived the ski bum life for two years. I fell in love with it. I was able to also get into Colorado Mountain College’s sustainable cuisine program. So like the environmental engineering, and the culinary school that I did in Brazil.
VD: You had no idea that CMC was doing that, of course, when you moved here.
MB: No idea. But I loved it so much out here. Thank god I had my family that supported me. After I graduated, I moved to Eastern Washington state. I helped to run a farm-to-table restaurant over there, Black Cypress. The owner was helping shape my career as a chef, which, by that point I was a cook. A pretty well experienced cook, but I didn’t have the managerial skills. And those were the years that helped to shape that. I was pretty much planning my whole entire menu with several different farmers, organically, sustainably. We were helping plant everything through harvest. It was really, really cool to have that. I was there for about three years.
VD: But you eventually came back to Vail.
MB: I was missing it so much: my friends, the lifestyle. I was very picky when I came back to Vail. I’m going to pick the best restaurant. It was offseason, so I went and straight up knocked on the door, and pretty much told my story. I applied then and there, and they hired me. So I took the job as a cook I worked at basil as a cook for about a year. And then the opportunity came, and I moved over to Mountain Standard. It was time to be that leader again. I loved working there. The food is incredible. I was able to really grow into my to my role there until the opportunity came For Basil and they needed a sous chef. I’ve been there for a year and a half now, and at both restaurants since 2017.
VD: Obviously it’s probably awesome to be back in Vail, but one thing I’ve learned about you — and about other local chefs I’ve talked to — is that travel is a valuable part of being a chef.
MB: Oh, 100%. I was always trying to take the time to go to new places get new influences. I’ve learned throughout my life that traveling and experiencing and seeing new cultures and eating food or just going out to eat … that is what is shaping you background.
VD: What are some of the places you’ve traveled and what are some of the most memorable meals you’ve had in those places?
MB: One of the first ones that come to mind was in Lummi Island outside Seattle. They had this little restaurant called the Willows Inn. I was there about like eight years ago, and I did their tasting menu, which was like 17 to 18 courses or something like that. About five years after that meal, they won best restaurant in the US. The chef helped to open Noma in Copenhagen. It was an incredible meal. And of course, in Brazil, if you traveled to a little small beach town on the coast, and you went through this little tiny restaurant, they can be serving the best kind of seafood and the best meal in the world. And then of course you know, traveling to London and Paris, seeing the markets, eating at places like The Savoy in London. Travel has a lot to do with the standard of where my food can take me. Right before I moved to the US, my mom took my sister and I to Chile. We did an experience in the middle of the Atacama Desert salt flats. They pretty much serve a full meal in the middle of the salt flat. Experiences like that I have in my memory is pretty, pretty incredible.
VD: Earlier you mentioned that you love watching cooking shows Do you have favorites?
MB: Oh my gosh I have so many. I grew up watching, like my whole entire life. I grew up watching Jamie Oliver and crazy Gordon Ramsey.
VD: Is that why you went to The Savoy?
VD: That’s awesome.
MB: My mom had video cassettes of Julia Child.
VD: Back to the award. I mean, it must be really gratifying to have come from engineering school, to forging a new path, to 10 years later you’re living in a new country, working as a sous chef. How does it feel?
MB: I think this award shows the whole history, the love, the passion, the hours and hours and hours of work. And that pretty much helped me to get here. To see to see that, and to see Colorado Chef of the Year and my name under it. That is just so gratifying. It’s unbelievable. It’s still like I need to pinch myself. I have no almost no words to describe, I’m just so grateful.
VD: Was this something that you ever even dreamed was in the realm of possibility when you first started your culinary career?
MB: No, never. I’m a very passionate person. My life was always just following my passion. It was following dreams, about having fun and loving life, right? Cooking comes 100% directly through that because food makes you feel good. It’s such a comforting thing for anyone in the world. I’ve never asked for one raise ever in my life, because I was just happy cooking and doing it. It comes from deep inside of my heart, to give something to people and to make them super happy.
VD: It seems like, even before the award, cooking isn’t something you do for like recognition from people, it’s something you do to make people happy.
MB: Yes 100%, that’s what it is and it’s always been. It comes naturally to me. Yeah, everything you know cooking and just doing it. I don’t know if you’ve heard or seen the movie “Chocolate,” it’s one of my favorite culinary movies of all time. Anyway, there’s a scene with about 10-15 people sitting around the table. And when they set the meal, it’s slow-mo, people eating it with just happiness, enjoying the moment and looking at each other and filling in their faces … just like this carnal moment. I live for that passion of seeing people just be so happy and eat food.