Behind the Scenes: Bravo for Larkspur
July 8, 2012
Larkspurs (delphinium) appear in Greek mythology. Either as a repellent for scorpions and poisonous insects or an ingredient the Native Americans use for blue dye, this flower has a long, fascinating history. It is a symbol of compromise and represents a heavenly transcendence.
Aptly named, Larkspur Restaurant in Vail does not compromise on quality and service, but it will offer you a heavenly transcendence into epicurean nirvana.
On the first Friday of the Bravo music festival, I entered Larkspur’s labyrinthine kitchen through an inconspicuous side door I’ve passed numerous times on my way to ski or dine. It had been several months since I worked on a line. They didn’t know me. I didn’t know them. It’s fair to say both sides were a little nervous. This was a moment akin to Forrest Gump’s momma’s box of chocolates – neither party knew what they were “gonna git.” But I had no time for nerves. The curtain was going up in four hours and it was time to work with the company to prepare for evening service.
Operations manager Allana Smith whisked me in, introduced me to owner and father of the famous Larkburger, Thomas Salamunovich, executive chef Richard Hinojosa and my boss for the night, chef de cuisine David Bielecki. Within 15 minutes of walking in the door, I had Bielecki’s perfectly honed knife in my left hand and onions before me. We were making corn “tea.”
Bielecki, who came to Vail from New York in November 2011, was a patient teacher. He guided me through the process of making his “tea,” a liquid he favors in vegetarian dishes such as risotto. I was so intrigued with this transformation of items normally destined for landfills into a delicious liquid, please indulge me as I take you through the steps. Keep in mind these amounts were for a 32-inch rondo – a 6-inch tall pot with a variety of uses such as making stocks or roasting mirepoix.
The day after my experiential research at Larkspur, I was in City Market buying fresh corn. I thought to myself “what a waste” to see people shucking corn and tossing the silk and husks. OK, I admit, I was one of those people before learning how these dregs could be steeped into a lovely liquid to add that je n’ai sais quoi to a dish.
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Like so many walk-ins I’d seen, the Larkspur cooler was a mini food shop. The first “department” contained a broad selection of beautiful fruits and vegetables, many already prepped and ready for use, and sauces of all types. Through an internal door I found an array of raw seafood and meat. These foods are high risk, so to guard against cross-contamination the foods with the greatest risk, like chicken and fish, are closer to the bottom. On the walk-in shelves, meticulously plated and covered tuna crudo and carpaccio awaited the final toppings at garde manger station. Little did I know then I would become quite familiar with how labor-intensive these seemingly simple dishes can be. But more on that next week! Back to corn tea.
From the walk-in, I took eight white onions and a huge box of corncobs totally stripped of kernels and precious milk. I sliced the onions and turned to the corncobs. I traded Bielecki’s ultra-sharp knife for a cleaver. Another first for me. Cleavers are sort of Stephen King-scary. So with cleaver in hand, ever mindful of what else I could cut, I dissected 50 or so cobs into three pieces. I lost count.
Onto a stock burner went the heavy rondo. Over a medium flame I heated oil, then added onions that were slowly cooked to translucence. Then came the cobs, corn silk and husks, but only the light green pieces so as not to add green color. After stirring the ingredients to heat them up and get the flavors moving, in went eight liters of water and a small handful of black peppercorns. An hour or so of simmering, and then another hour of steeping produced a lovely liquid that was tasty on its own.
With the stock simmering, it was on to other tasks. Activity never ceases in a fine-dining kitchen. Prepping for the evening occurs while chefs and cooks busily prep for the coming days. Larkspur’s booth in the Vail Sunday market features their famous fried meat tacos. Kitchen manager Zach Jakubowski mans the market booth where he fries up tacos to order. Jakubowski walked me through the assembly process and then turned me loose on a seemingly endless supply of grilled tortillas, meat stuffing and small wooden skewers. Just when I was finally getting the hang of it, I could sense the already intense pace in the kitchen speeding up behind me. It was already 5 p.m. and service was drawing near.
One thing that has amazed me about every back-of-the-house I experienced, to my untrained eye it is impossible to identify newbies to the restaurants, be they line cooks or executive chefs. Everyone knows their marks and their parts in this culinary symphony. On this day there was a new maestro preparing for his first night, Executive Chef Richard Hinojosa.
Hinojosa, who is also a certified sommelier and originally from San Antonio, Texas, came to Vail from Hotel Jerome in Aspen where he served as executive chef. Before moving to the high country, Hinojosa was executive sous chef at Westin Maui Resort and Spa. On this night he was delighted to debut the pata negra – jamon iberico de belotta.
This Iberian ham comes from a black pig native to Spain. The pigs are raised free range, feeding on acorns (belotta) that impart a distinctive flavor throughout the meat. The belotta ham is the finest quality pata negra and wholesales for a whopping $96 per pound. This “caviar” of hams was forbidden in the United States until late 2007 when the USDA finally approved a slaughterhouse in Spain. The belotta followed shortly after in 2008. It is considered the finest, and most expensive, ham in the world and very little is exported. It’s an intriguing product. Google “pata negra” and you’ll find a plethora of fascinating information.
Pata negra is best served room temperature, so a few hours before service Hinojosa removed the leg from the cooler and set it in a beautiful wooden cradle known as a jamonero.
Thanks to the early onset of summer, Hinojosa was able to obtain ripe apricots from Palisade he grilled for use in his two-plate presentation. One rectangular plate contained paper-thin slices of ham. The other plate held the complimentary flavors: housemade ricotta, grilled apricots, roasted marcona almonds and grilled flatbread.
So that was prepping. Come back next week to find out how I performed during service and what interesting things I learned. Until then, enjoy the beautiful music being made in Ford Ampitheater and behind the scenes at Larkspur.
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. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.