Avon’s Blue Plate Bistro: A case study in Epicurean diversity
VAIL CO, Colorado
In the heart of Avon lies a bistro with a grand view of Beaver Creek’s slopes, great food and a management team and staff that resembles the United Nations. After spending four years in their small, nondescript quarters in the Christie Lodge, in early winter 2011- ’12, Syrian-born Chef Adam and Elli Roustom, his Austrian wife, partner and restaurant manager, moved across the street to the highly visible “boat building” location. With the move came not only bigger, more refined digs and additional staff – which includes a Persian waiter and a Swiss line cook amongst other far-flung nationalities – but also an expanded menu that remains true to the “bistro” philosophy of simple, yet sophisticated food that pleases the senses and the wallet.
Having lived and worked in Switzerland most of my adult life where one can set clocks by the trains and busses, I learned early to adhere to the concept of “Swiss timing.” But on my Friday, March 2nd workday at Blue Plate, I was woefully late – nearly 10 minutes. Waiting for me at the door at 10:09 a.m., holding his ever-present cup of coffee, was Chef Adam.
It was the first day of the Avon SnowBall and its challenges of crowds and unexpected incidents for local businesses. The week had brought blessed powder to the mountains, beckoning front-range skiers to the High Country. Elli reported brisk bookings for the night, so Chef was anticipating a 40-hour workload over the coming three days. In short, I chose a day that would prove to be anything but boring.
Roustom was interviewing a line cook candidate so I had an opportunity to hear him explain the workings of the bistro and his philosophy on the restaurant industry. Roustom, who began his culinary career in a Massachusetts pizza parlor at the ripe age of 12, believes “the restaurant industry is a killer where it is easy lose money and hard to make it.” “Long hours, hard work, bad pay, a short season, the need for mental clarity, common sense, drive and passion” were all descriptive phrases Roustom used to explain to the eager candidate what it’s like to be a chef-owner in the Valley and the lifestyle choice he and Elli made. Developing a philosophy about food, not merely recipes, is what Roustom believes is the key to differentiating one’s self in the business. A concise, yet diverse, menu composed of simple fare taken to a new level is what defines the Blue Plate Bistro. For Roustom, excitement and satisfaction come from simple accolades such as “I love your meatloaf.” The immediate gratification of hearing such praise is what makes the seven-day workweeks, riding the peaks and valleys of the local economy, worth it for him.
The first order of business was to review information Sous Chef Kyrie Givens pulled from the night before. Givens is Roustom’s “No. 2” in the kitchen and is responsible for assisting Chef in overseeing the prep list and placing orders for food and supplies. She has the demeanor and professionalism of someone well beyond her 24 years of age and was a delight to work with.
Knowing what all stations, including grill, saute, garde manger (salad station) and schnitzel, used the night before is the first step in drafting the day’s prep list and food and supply orders. As in every place I’ve conducted my “experiential research” this season, preparation is key to running an efficient restaurant kitchen and Blue Plate was no different. “Mise en place” is the French phrase that literally means, “putting in place” and is used to describe the process of prepping ingredients. Chef Roustom says “mise en place, mise en place, mise en place,” for a chef is akin to a real estate agent’s mantra of “location, location, location.” Both are key elements of success in each business.
Everything had to be prepped by the day staff – all while they served lunch – to enable the evening shift to hit the ground running to seamlessly serve the anticipated crowds. Although his staff preps most ingredients, Chef takes charge of the day’s most tedious prepping – lobsters for his Friday special, “Lobster Thermidor.” Like Chef Steve Topple, Roustom preps the seafood himself. Roustom moved to Massachusetts from Damascus as a 10 year old and quickly developed a love of seafood, particularly lobsters. Having grown up in south Louisiana where my father taught me to fish in the marshes and offshore in the Gulf, I related to this love of the sea and its bounty. The beautiful flavors of fresh seafood in both complex and simple dishes are culinary heaven to someone with salt water in their veins.
Chef’s live Maine lobsters arrived that morning. A huge pot of salted water was set on the 100,000 BTU stock burner for the first of many steps in preparing the lobsters for the Thermidor. After precisely 5 minutes in the boiling water – something I couldn’t watch – the lobsters were plunged into an ice bath. Alex, one of Chef’s most reliable cooks, prepared the station by lining the wall and counter with plastic wrap. Chef and I worked on the claws, carefully matching the meat of claws and knuckles of each lobster, while Alex worked on the tails. It’s a messy job and the lobsters were wearing thick shells, making it quite a painful challenge. Onto lined sheet pans and into the cooler went the meat, while the bodies were frozen for future use in a bisque stock. The precious roe from the females was gathered up for use in the Thermidor sauce. Although an inky blackish-green color in its natural state, the roe turned red when heated in the sauce, adding another layer of flavor and texture.
As the shadows lengthened, the “bewitching hour” began. This is what Roustom calls that time just before evening service when stations are set up and final preparations are made. I was given a blue and white bandana to tie around my head, the uniform of the kitchen team. As diners flowed in and the energy level increased, Chef took his position on the counter’s kitchen side while his expo (expediter) readied his spot. I’m sure somewhere a bell rang and starting gates flew open because suddenly everyone burst into action. As chaotic as it might look to some, what happens on the line is carefully orchestrated by Chef calling back orders to relevant stations. Before handing them across the counter, Roustom carefully checked each dish. For my part, I stood next to Chef feeling a bit frustrated in not being more useful, but all the while enjoying the experience and the pleasant aromatic and visual attack on my senses.
We certainly have seen the waxing and waning of eateries in the Valley, particularly in the past three years, yet Roustom is driven by his passion for this lifestyle choice that he shares with Elli. He takes great joy in expressing his gratitude for her hard work and dedication in managing the business. More than once, Chef declared, “without Elli, this would not be possible!” No doubt her hard work managing the business facilitates his ability to focus on the kitchen. From veal or pork schnitzel with a perfect souffle breadcrumb crust, to Colorado beef with mushroom sauce, and Syrian lentil soup full of exotic Middle Eastern spices, all the dishes that emerge from the tiny kitchen are made with passion and reflect Chef’s love of his craft. With their “family,” Chef Adam and Elli have created a melting pot of cuisines that has punctuated the eclectic culture of the Vail Valley.
Next week’s column: Do you ever give thought to how that bottle of Barbera you ordered got to you in Colorado? Read the “Behind the Scenes in the Wine Importation Business” on March 19th.
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 Chaîne des Rôtisseurs. She is passionate about all things gastronomique. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to email@example.com.