Behind the Scenes: The genesis of great barbecue
Behind the Scenes
Vail, CO Colorado
When I first came to Beaver Creek in 2003, I loved passing the Berry Creek stables, where lots of horses were being ridden, groomed or just lazing in their paddocks. Needless to say, the stable, like the ranches that once occupied the Eagle River Valley, was a casualty of the valley’s development. Fortunately, to satisfy my horse-loving side, I discovered Brush Creek Valley, a place not far from the river where I could still see remnants of central Colorado’s ranching heritage. Horses roam pastures and barns still stand. At least for now. But at the southern end of the valley, development crept in: the residential golf community of Adam’s Rib Ranch.
The development lies on Brush Creek Road, less than 10 minutes southeast of Eagle. Although the developer’s vision has yet to be fully realized, Adam’s Rib Ranch boasts one of the most beautiful golf courses in Colorado. Its large homes blend into the wild landscape. But golf is not the only service provided at the club. Golfers, members and visitors who come on the days the restaurant is open to the public, have to eat. Who better to provide dining options from rustic barbecue to fine dining dishes than Michael Connolly, executive chef?
I first met Connolly in 2004 during the development of another residential golf community, Brightwater Club south of Gypsum. Thus far, Adam’s Rib has fared better than Brightwater. Connolly was Brightwater’s executive chef and, for the brief summers it was open, ran its Lake House restaurant. It’s fair to say that in addition to his expert culinary skills, Connolly developed a talent for flexibility and making do with what’s at hand. In club restaurants only open five months a year, those skills are crucial to success.
Prepping for a wedding barbecue
The day after my long shift at Larkspur, I drove to the clubhouse to join Connolly and his staff behind the scenes at a wedding for 200. It was the last day of a month that will long be remembered for its wildfires and hot, dry and incredibly windy days. The Stage 2 fire ban prohibiting charcoal fires somewhat dampened Connolly’s plans to showcase his barbecue prowess. Although he was able to prepare meats indoors and on the gas grill, the smoker was sidelined. Not to worry, the meats were fabulous, made even better by his delicious signature barbecue sauces.
What I found was a clubhouse kitchen, a bit different from Larkspur’s: smaller, much hotter and fewer chefs and cooks. But other than those differences, Connolly’s kitchen had the same pulsating energy. As always, I was put to work as soon as I could tie my apron.
Quesadillas, which require prepping lots of onions and bell peppers, were on the menu. It was my job to prep and construct 18 of them. Onions and peppers are two basic vegetables I’ve befriended over the past seven months of working behind the scenes, so I was fine with that. Fortunately, like prepping for stocks, chopping onions for quesadillas doesn’t have to be precise science. Peppers present a little more of a challenge. David Kairis, Four Seasons sous chef, taught me to filet peppers last February. Those skills have served me well. Peppers are a little more time consuming. Unlike onions where it’s pretty much “chop away,” the seeds and pith – the white flesh inside the pepper – are bitter and must be removed. For a seasoned prep cook, it’s a quick process, but I don’t prep hundreds of peppers week. I’m far from seasoned!
Across from me, cook Isaiah Bonillas was fast at work prepping meats to the rhythms of blasting techno and rap music. OK, here’s where being the oldest in a kitchen becomes a definite disadvantage. I have yet to hear soft rock or Bach and Beethoven. I’m fast concluding that loud music is a requirement for prepping. At least in restaurants. Not in my house where Radio Suisse Classique is usually my cooking music of choice.
Bonillas, who came to Colorado from Los Angeles to “escape gang influences,” Gretchen Raisch and Robert Horsey, sous chef, round out Connolly’s staff. It’s hard for local chefs to find and retain good help, but at the far end of Brush Creek Valley off the public transportation grid, it’s even harder. Horsey was with Connolly at Brightwater. Bonillas and Raisch joined Horsey on the line this season. It’s dishwashers that are the hardest to find, and on this day when pots, pans and utensils had to be turned over and reused and plates, glasses and cutlery for more than 200 people washed, Connolly sent out an SOS to Adam’s Rib staff for help. Three people who had already put in a busy day outside the restaurant heeded the chef’s call.
That night – like others, I’m told – Brynly Marsh, golf course superintendent, tied on an apron and manned the dishwasher. Adam Johnson and Clark Hogan, who also work at the club in the pro shop and outside services, dried and stored everything the dishwasher spat out. Filled kitchen trashcans needed to be emptied. Johnson and Clark were on it. Thank heaven Adam’s Rib Ranch is not unionized!
Once the outdoor ceremony ended, Connolly called out “all hands on deck.” And it was. All the hors d’oeuvres were plated and handed off to servers. Then came refills and more hors d’oeuvres, a cycle that continued until everything was served. Now came time for the main course: the barbecue!
The secret’s in the sauce
Connolly feels at home preparing fine dining dishes, but he’s happiest when it’s barbecue time. The wedding menu included barbecued St. Louis-style pork spare ribs, beef brisket, pulled pork and chicken, and, of course, the “fixins” including beans and potato salad. I really didn’t have a favorite, as all the meats were delicious, but the ribs were crazy wicked. Of course, all the meats were served with Connolly’s barbecue sauces: Texas Spicy, Alabama White, Georgia Mustard, Citrus and Sweet Baby Rays. Connolly’s company, Red Canyon Spice, currently sells nine spices and five sauces in local shops, but you can find him manning his booth at the Saturday Edwards Market. Chili salts are in the works and will soon be released. But there is so much to tell you about Red Canyon Spice that I plan to help Connolly on a “sauce-making day” in the near future.
It was a fascinating experience to work with Connolly and his staff he calls “the best crew” in his four seasons at the club. From the work ethic of the “hands on deck” that evening, I can see why he feels that way. Connolly is a stern, but kind, patient captain of his ship, and his staff rewards him with hard work, translating into a delicious dining experience.
And with Mother Nature soon blasting the landscape with color before winter sets in, there is no better place to watch her art and enjoy Connolly’s dining creations than Adam’s Rib Ranch clubhouse.
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. Visit http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to email@example.com.