Learning farmhouse fine dining
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series. Check back next week to read the final installment.
Despite torrential downpours and violent lightning that August monsoons deliver each afternoon, the day of the Roundup River Ranch event was meteorologically quiet. When 305 people are coming for dinner, rain and lightning are unwelcome guests.
Given the dry day, I felt ungrateful complaining about the 90-degree heat; however, as night approached and a gentle breeze kicked up, the day’s heat surrendered to cool night air. Except in the kitchen, where things were heating up!
Appetizers serve to stimulate appetites before a meal. La Tour in Vail owner-chef Paul Ferzacca’s four enticing hors d’oeuvre were a grand opening act of the smash hit culinary production. Appetites were certainly stimulated!
In addition to 16 hours prepping in the restaurant, Ferzacca’s assistants — Paul DiMario, La Tour’s head sommelier, and cook Jordan Dykes — spent more than two hours onsite assembling 1,200 pieces of Kampachi sashimi with yuzu caviar, Olathe sweet corn panna cotta with pickled chanterelles, red curry mussels, and lamb and bacon-wrapped dates with Fruition Farms sheep ricotta.
This marked Ferzacca’s second year with the event. From humble culinary beginnings at Two Elk on Vail Mountain where he changed “ski cuisine,” to La Tour, Ferzacca has been a generous member of Vail’s dining community. “Vail has been so kind to me,” he said more than once as we chatted recently about his culinary donations. No doubt, Grateful Harvest is his labor of love. More than once, “love” crept into his description of the camp and the event. No stranger to culinary fundraisers, Ferzacca still finds the amount of money raised in such a short time at the event “awesome.”
Steven Teaver, craft cocktail magician, sommelier and restaurant manager of Flame at Vail’s Four Seasons Resort, created five signature cocktails. Drinks with names like “True Grit” (a bourbon barrel Martinez with gin, bourbon and vermouth), “Bronco Bubbles” (Prosecco with Aperol and a spritzer) and “Cowboy Boot Juice” (gin, Solerno, blood orange juice, agave, fresh tarragon and rosemary) paired perfectly with Ferzacca’s hors d’oeuvres.
Not into cocktails? Sonnenalp Resort’s sommelier Jarrett Quint was there to pour non-vintage California Chandon Brut “Classic” Moet Chandon generously donated. Doug Fugate, of August Wine Group, donated vinous choices including barbera d’Alba and pinot grigio. Rallying to the cause, Fugate also donated a last-minute request for the Prosecco Teaver needed for his Bronco Bubbles. Crazy Mountain Brewery in Edwards donated several choices of its popular craft beers. There was a little something for everyone to toast the lovely weather and kick off a night of dining and giving.
At 6 p.m., the dinner bell sounded. I would like to say guests made a beeline for their tables. Perhaps diners couldn’t break away from the combination of Ferzacca’s delicious appetizers and the accompanying copious libations. Eventually, after a good deal of nudging, diners relented and dinner began.
Peachy keen soup
Chef-restaurateur Kelly Liken is a mainstay in the camp’s annual celebration of nature’s bounty. Before a single building was built, long before the first campers arrived, Liken passionately supported the camp and its mission. She “loves being a part of it and seeing the amazing work the camp accomplishes.” There’s that “love” word again. I assume her love of food and its power for good is the fountainhead of her culinary generosity.
I doubt there exists a vegetable or fruit Liken doesn’t like, particularly if locally grown. For that reason, she once again asked to prepare the first course. “Nothing says ‘Colorado’ like fresh Western Slope peaches,” proclaimed Liken in describing why she prepared Palisade peach soup. After six hours of prepping 60 pounds of sweet peaches she donated, Liken transformed the fruit into 10 gallons of velvety puree.
One might think soup’s an easy dish to serve. One would be wrong. Well, let’s just say when it’s garnished with crisp guanciale, pickled chiles and cilantro creme fraiche, it takes a village to assemble 305 servings. As with each course that followed, the other chefs and their assistants pitched in to support the “course owner” on the assembly line.
As though in a wild game of poker, chefs dealt bowls onto the two long tables setup in the front of the kitchen. Liken plated a template serving before she began filling bowls with soup. Believe it or not, in approximately 10 minutes, 305 plates of soup topped with three garnishes vanished from the kitchen. As chef coordinator Heather Weems handed off the last bowl to a server, chefs busily reset the table for the next assembly line.
In pairing Liken’s soup, Vin48’s co-owner and wine director Greg Eynon took on what he described as an “interesting challenge.” To complement the “fresh, sweet, vibrant qualities of the Colorado peaches and the wild, savory components of the guanciale,” Eynon chose 2011 Herencia Altes Garnatxa Blanca from Terra Alta near the sea at high altitude in Spain’s northeast. The wine’s minerality and fresh acidity complemented the fresh peaches.
Pescatarian chef Sergio Howland oversees culinary operations at Timber Resorts’ Sebastian hotel in Vail. Howland’s innovative use of fruits of the sea helped make the hotel’s restaurant, Leonora, a popular Vail foodie destination. Before I asked him to participate, I knew fish would be Howland’s epicurean contribution.
Like all participating chefs, experimentation was part of developing Howland’s recipe for success. Initially, Howland wanted to use Scottish steelhead, a trout similar in color and texture to salmon. However, after searing and resting the fish for the same amount of time anticipated between searing and serving at the event, he discovered a fishy taste developed from the steelhead’s high fat content. Back to the drawing board.
Next, Howland experimented with Skuna Bay river-farmed salmon from British Columbia. Howland regularly serves this delicious fish both raw and cooked at Leonora. Unfortunately, the producer limits orders to four whole fish per week. Even in Biblical times, serving 305 people on four whole fish would be challenging. Eventually, Howland chose — but did not settle on — fresh Norwegian salmon.
During the hour Howland seared 330 4-ounce salmon portions, his two assistants, poissonier cook and kitchen comedian Brian Grebow, and Fernanda Pacheco, La Cordon Bleu intern from Mexico City, and Zino’s Ronny Valladares prepared plates that now covered nearly every inch of the kitchen’s available counter space with a traditional Italian salsa verde, piquillo peppers and tomato sofrito. After resting and a flash in the oven before serving, the assembly line restarted. Placing fish portions on prepared plates was easy. Moving plates from the various spots throughout the kitchen to the plating table was the challenge.
For the fish, Quint paired an Argentinian wine Moet Chandon donated. The great aromatic persistence of the fresh 2012 Terrazas de los Andes, Torrontes, Salta, paired perfectly with Howland’s salmon preparation.
As I wrote this second — and what I thought would be last — part describing behind-the-scenes activity at the Grateful Harvest dinner, I realized two parts were woefully inadequate to do justice to the chefs who worked so hard to create the dining experience. Therefore, you’ll have to savor the flavors of Ferzacca’s, Liken’s and Howland’s dishes a little longer until next week, when we return to the kitchen for the remaining two courses. In the meantime, you could also visit any of the chefs’ delightful restaurants!
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are http://www.suziknowsbest.com and http://www.winefamilies.com. Email comments about this story to email@example.com.