Turn the Flavor Up
Chef Marcus Stewart of Four Seasons Vail offers customized spice rub classes in the hotel’s kitchen
When Marcus Stewart walks into the Four Seasons Vail kitchen, there is no question that he is in his element. It might look like he’s just walking from Point A to Point B, but he’s actually percolating, planning: What should I do next? That might be creating a new menu item, talking cuts of bison with a purveyor or making sure there’s enough melted butter within easy access of the grill station. And by enough, he means more than you think he means — and we’ll leave it at that.
Though the Four Seasons kitchen is a busy operation, occasionally the door swings open to deposit a visitor in street clothes, looking vaguely out of place in the tidy, industrial space. Chef Stewart easily puts them at ease with friendly enthusiasm and an unflappable hospitality.
He’s had plenty of opportunities to share his workspace with strangers, as he often hosts small groups for various customized experiences, whether it’s the family-friendly Burger Bar or a private class on creating spice rubs. As one might expect from the executive sous chef of an operation with an infrared broiler that makes easy work of various steaks and chops, spice rubs are a bit of a thing for him. And he’s got the sort of spice stockpile that makes it fun — and easy — to experiment.
Since this is a customized adventure, Chef Stewart doesn’t hand you a recipe and dutifully show you how to make it — though that is, of course, an option.
“I want to see what makes you happy,” he says to our group of three. Sparkling wine in hand, we aimed to answer the question.
There are two ways to begin: Find a purpose or follow a flavor.
“Decide what you’re going to use it for,” advises the chef. “Or find something that you just can’t get enough of. What flavor do you need more of in your life?”
And lastly, you have to figure out when you’re going to use the blend — as a dry rub/marinade before cooking, or as a finishing spice. The main difference between the two options is sugar, which can burn when cooked too long at too high a temperature (say, when you’re grilling something) but caramelizes beautifully when given a short window and some intense heat.
Once you’ve got a purpose or a flavor figured out, Chef Stewart hits the ground running. He might reach for a lemon and a microplane, creating zest, or for one of the dozens of tins and jars that adorn the spice table. He might even reach for some coffee beans. The whole time he’s talking out loud, either to give pointers on home prep or to do some calculations. He advises us to dry our fresh zest if putting it in a rub. “Keep all the ingredients dry,” he says. “Maintaining integrity of flavor is really important.”
But as fanciful as the table laden with spices seems, and as liberal as the chef might be when grabbing this or that flavor, it all eventually comes down to math. Pen in hand and scale on the counter, he weighs everything.
“Ratios are very, very fun,” he says. “My favorite part of being in the kitchen is mathematics.”
What he means is, there are ratios of salt to sugar to herbs and spices that guarantee good flavor, depending on what you’re going for. After explaining it, he demonstrates with a piece of paper, some columns and his measurements.
It’s a fun and interactive experience, with everyone getting to create his or her own blend. And between watching how it’s done and listening to the chef rattle off advice, it’s easy to feel empowered — emboldened, even — to go forth and make many spice rubs.
We ended up with a dry rub for chicken pasta (Mediterranean influences), another rub for grilled red meat (coffee and chiles) and a finishing blend designed around urfa biber, a sexy rock star of a Middle Eastern chile.
“And then you have to find a name,”
No blend is complete without its own name. Chef Stewart favors puns and pop culture references. From his own roster, he’s got I’m a Believer, named after the Justin Bieber song because it’s heavy on the urfa biber; On Shrooms, so called for the porcini that anchors it; and an Indian-influenced au poivre he calls Black Mambo.
Taste of Vail
The spice rub class is one of several ways the Four Seasons Resort and Residences Vail offers a hyper-local experience to its visitors. From spa treatments that include local booze and brews to the new, over-the-top Farm to Flame program (which includes a helicopter ride to Hotchkiss where the fabled 7X Ranch can be toured), the resort’s programs highlight Colorado’s spirit and a well-honed sense of place. There is no mistaking Four Seasons Vail for Four Seasons elsewhere: When Vail receives 6+ inches of snow, guests are greeted with powdered donuts and white hot chocolate in celebration of the powder day; Dawn Patrol teams up guests with a guide and a professional photographer for a hike up and ski down, all caught on camera; the Groomer Day package eases guests through the day with localized spa treatments and a styling session by local fashion guru Luca Bruno. These are all highlights specific to Vail and its environs.
And, as for the spice rub class, it’s not just entertaining. In addition to leaving with recipes and multiple tins of spice blends, the best part might be getting to taste the cuisine. Depending on what’s been created, Chef Stewart might bring out a bison steak or a lamb chop and show how it’s done. Entertaining strangers and giving classes aside, he’s got some serious skills working the grill. And, as mentioned before, he is not afraid of a little butter. Talk about a savory finish.