Sneak peek at Sonnenalp’s kitchen
February 13, 2012
As I discovered at Splendido, running a successful fine-dining restaurant is quite a challenge. But, the complexity of running multiple food outlets in a luxury resort hotel caught my attention for this week’s “experiential research” project.
So, off I went to work in Ludwig’s, the flagship restaurant of Vail’s Sonnenalp Resort. Ludwig’s proved to be the perfect venue for a behind-the-scenes experience in a Vail landmark hotel, particularly on a day where 40 guests were expected for a five-course wine dinner. The pressure was on, and I was ready for the challenge.
The Sonnenalp has three restaurants, one lounge, banquet facilities and room service for 127 rooms and suites. Except for one restaurant, The Swiss Chalet, the culinary nerve center of the hotel is Ludwig’s kitchen, where staff is on-hand 24/7.
Burgers, salads and light fare served in the Bully Ranch are created in a tiny but well-appointed open kitchen. The stream of dishes, cutlery, stemware and cooking utensils through the central dishwashing area never ceases, only ebbs and flows, making this station a crucial element in the efficient running of the restaurants. Below the hotel’s ground floor, serving the kitchen is a labyrinth of offices, the pastry kitchen, room-service outlet and walk-in coolers.
Executive Chef Steve Topple oversees all Sonnenalp food and beverage operations. Topple is new to Ludwig’s this year, having taken his culinary prowess east across Dowd Junction from Beano’s Cabin. Wherever Topple goes, so goes his passion for fresh fish.
In his first season, Topple has redesigned Ludwig’s culinary offerings. While keeping traditional favorites such as elk Wellington and herb-crusted Colorado lamb, Topple augmented the menu with a variety of innovative, fresh seafood dishes.
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On three of his six work days a week, Topple receives shipments of sustainably fished products chosen from Seattle Fish Co. daily list of available fresh seafood. Although Topple has some standard favorites on the menu, his daily catch – and manner of preparing it – changes according to availability of the freshest and highest-quality products. Topple prominently displays in the kitchen a whiteboard list of each species of fish and shellfish he has prepared this winter. The list is fast approaching 30 different species.
After running through the overnight flood of emails, Topple begins his Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings with his favored culinary task – filleting fish. On average, Topple filets 100 pounds of fish in each nondelegable “surgical” session. On this particular day, Topple used his scalpel-sharp fish knife to filet a 20-pound yellowfin tuna No. 1 (sashimi-grade), mahi-mahi, black bass, yellowtail snapper and lemon sole. A “pin boner” – a sort of fish tweezers – is the most important tool in Topple’s kit. After filleting the fish, he carefully runs his gloved fingers across the fish flesh, seeking remaining bones. One by one, he plucks them from the flesh until he is satisfied none remain.
The yellowfin tuna is the most intriguing fish both, because of its size – not to mention its hefty price – and the myriad of dishes made from the filets. Everything is used except the skin, bones and bloodline (that dark, blood-red part of the tuna’s flesh that somehow always makes its way into pricey tuna steaks at the grocery store). Ceviche, tuna burgers and seared tuna salad are just some of Topple’s preparations of this prized fish.
Once filleting is complete and the fish properly stored, our somewhat leisurely pace quickens as preparation for evening service begins in earnest. It is at this point my notes end as I plunged head first into a series of tasks of preparing dishes from scratch. My work on the line begins.
Under the guidance of our “conductor,” Topple, and beside my supervisor and patient teacher, Sous Chef Daniel D’Onofrio, we worked with Sous Chef Kyle McPhedran, Pastry Chef Bernie Oswald and Line Cooks Jessica Cook, Kyle Hoopman and Billy Ettawil until the last serving of the wine dinner’s main course left the kitchen.
First order of business is to make a confit by placing 25 pounds of cured lamb belly into approximately four gallons of duck fat infused with aromatics such as fresh thyme, bay leaves, black peppercorns, onion and garlic. A “tilt skillet” is used for this process. I carefully place the lamb-belly slabs into the duck fat and cover it with a “cartouche” – parchment paper with vents cut out – to keep the meat submerged.
My grandfather was a butcher, so when I was given the task of slicing nearly four pounds of pancetta with a meat slicer, my adrenaline began to surge. “Don’t go near the meat slicer” was a stern warning I often heard as a child. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I had to slice not a few, but more than 200 thin slices of meat using a machine I had been programmed to fear. It was an epiphany of sorts, and free from my fear of meat slicers, I forged onward performing new tasks with more confidence, free from a rather odd childhood fear.
The pancetta was used to wrap 24 or so seasoned kangaroo loin fillets. As the wine dinner main course, it was paired with a Melville Winery Samsara Syrah that brought out each distinctive flavor of the creative dish. With my newfound confidence, I eagerly followed D’Onofrio’s instructions to prep vegetables for the sides, drain the stock vat and reduce this precious liquid in the tilt skillet with a mirepoix of carrots, onions and celery, help finish the duxelles of trumpet, chanterelle and oyster mushrooms and assemble the elk Wellington. Eight rectangles of Oswald’s puff pastry formed the blanket under which elk tenderloin, coated with duxelles and Dijon mustard, would cook to perfection. Another fear eliminated – that of making a Wellington!
After guests were seated, Restaurant Manager Ishael Ananda and Topple coordinated to the minute the quick but unhurried movement of food from kitchen to table. We all moved rapidly in the tight, three-foot-wide hot space at the burners and Salamanders – doorless, high-powered overhead grills – as though anticipating each other’s actions. Everyone alternated between preparing menu items and completing a total of 200 plates for the wine dinner. When D’Onofrio placed the last finished kangaroo over black lentils and topped it with black trumpet mushrooms, it was high-five time in the kitchen. But that was merely a pause, as Oswald already was preparing 40 plates of his intricate dessert of cherry-valrhona millefeuille cake, nougat mousse with vanilla brandy foam. By the time the day was over, Sonnenalp’s food and beverage operations logged 574 covers.
Ludwig’s is the tip of the Sonnenalp culinary iceberg, and no doubt visitors and locals alike would enjoy Ludwig’s on a summer night. My experience, both as a satisfied diner and a humble line cook, has shown that owner Johannes Faessler has done well in giving Topple the opportunity to bring the hotel’s culinary offerings to new heights.
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 email@example.com.