State-of-the-art Four Seasons kitchen: Culinary nerve center
Behind the Scenes
Vail, CO Colorado
So far this winter, I’ve worked behind the scenes in a variety of venues throughout the valley, the most recent being the 12,000-square-foot kitchen of the Four Seasons Resort in Vail. Under the supervision of Chaine des Rotisseurs member and Executive Chef Jason Harrison and his team, I worked in the perfect venue to experience the luxury hotel’s food and beverage operations on one of the busiest days of the ski season, over Presidents Day weekend.
And what a venue it is! The state-of-the-art kitchen is the nerve center of a culinary complex consisting of several cooking areas and ancillary support facilities, including numerous walk-in coolers and freezers, dishwashing, offices and beverage services. Since space is at such a premium in many Vail Valley commercial kitchens, I found two areas particularly intriguing: the 590-square-foot pastry kitchen, where every sort of confection and pastry can be crafted, and the 700-square-foot cold prep room, where salads, fruits, charcuterie and cheeses are prepped and plated. These two kitchens are on either side of the main cooking area and, although separated from the heat of stations such as the 1,800-degree grill, large glass windows provide an open feeling to the entire complex. One is never isolated from the hubbub in the central cooking area. From my spot in the banquet prep area, I could peer into the pastry kitchen, where tall racks of chocolates, candies and elements of desserts were stored until final assembly. Although I enjoyed my work there, the work of the pastry chefs- who are truly artists – provided a pleasant distraction.
The hotel’s 82-seat flagship restaurant, Flame, is a breakfast and lunch restaurant by day and a steakhouse by night. Flame is only one of several dining outlets the vast kitchen serves. In-room dining, banquets, Fireside Lounge, pool bar and the employee cafeteria – where 150 meals are served throughout the day and into the night shift – all depend on the men and women who staff the kitchen 24/7.
Before joining the Four Seasons in 2010, Harrison served as executive chef at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, where he ran the hotel’s 14 dining outlets, which employed hundreds of sous chefs and cooks. Three valued members of his Bellagio chefs are now part of his sous chef team: David Kairis, Jay Shurtz and Billy Oziransky. Chef gave me a fun fact that provides some perspective on the size of Las Vegas dining operations and their impact on the country’s food supply. On a typical Super Bowl Sunday, the Bellagio serves up 55,000 chicken wings and that number is repeated that day in all the large hotels on the strip. That’s a lot of chickens! And that’s also a great deal of banquet and restaurant operation experience now found in the Four Seasons in Vail.
Like a growing number of Vail Valley chefs, Harrison is a diehard locavore. He avoids ordering foods that must travel long distances from farm to table, often requiring large amounts of energy for transport. Chef’s attitude is one I share, namely that we should eat fruits and vegetables during the seasons in which they grow locally. Being from south Louisiana, where it was once unthinkable to eat strawberries in winter, particularly since our famous large, sweet Ponchatoula strawberries are feted in a spring festival, I never adjusted to eating fruits such as berries and peaches in winter. Harrison revels in his ability to source the best Colorado has to offer, and it is reflected in the dishes he and his team create.
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My 12-hour shift on Saturday of Presidents Day weekend started at 11 a.m. Outfitted in a comfy uniform that actually fit me, I reported to the kitchen. My initial job was to work with Kairis to prep vegetables for Sunday’s breakfast potatoes. Once again, I had the opportunity to improve my knife skills. From the produce cooler, which resembled a tiny green grocer’s store, Kairis presented me with a large box of romaine lettuce hearts and we headed for cold prep. While I meticulously quartered, trimmed and bathed approximately 25 lettuce hearts for the banquet team’s Caesar salads, I was in the delightful company of longtime Four Seasons chef Mary Franco and her team. Franco is the only member of the opening kitchen staff who was previously with Four Seasons. Born in Columbia, she spent many years in London and Europe cooking with such notables as Jamie Oliver who, she reports, is as nice as he appears on TV.
As afternoon faded into early evening, I left the gentle pace of the cold prep for the hot line of stations, where dishes are made to order. Sous Chef Ted Smith, who was manning the seafood station that evening, warily took over supervising me from Kairis. In the final relative calm before dinner service began, Smith and other sous chefs meticulously prepared their stations. Preparation is crucial. Once the flood of orders begins, there is no stopping to chop this or boil that. Everything, including proper plates, must be ready for assembling the dishes. There is time only for quick dashes to the coolers for refills. However, the banquet chefs remained that evening to jump in to assist as needed.
After quizzing me on the four “must-always-have” ingredients at one’s station – butter, oil, salt and pepper – my orders were to prep several pounds of Brussels sprouts and make fresh gnocchi to accompany the seared scallops.
Gnocchi is a favorite of mine, but making it under the watchful eye of Smith was a new challenge. You’ll have to read my Behind the Scenes Facebook page to learn all of Smith’s secrets to making great gnocchi, but one of his important tips with gnocchi is about the dough’s feel and appearance as each ingredient is added. Pastry flour is best, in his opinion, as there is less gluten, yielding tender, not chewy, puffs of flour and potato.
The line of four cooking stations is the bulwark of the kitchen and is where a la carte orders are created. The pace – and the heat – increased as orders began to roll in. Harrison, who serves as the expediter, and Angelica Paladino, director of food and beverage, are key links in the service chain, particularly on such a busy night when hundreds of plates are prepared in a short time. Harrison checks each dish from the stations of Oziransky (grill), Smith (seafood), Kenny Butler (sauces and vegetables) and Dan Solsbery (the big “Flame” grill) before servers whisk orders away under Paladino’s watchful eye.
The Four Seasons was a wonderful learning experience, encompassing a broad range of kitchen services. Although on this day I did not work with exciting proteins such as elk, kangaroo and yellowfin tuna, once again I had fabulous experiences and worked with talented and generous professionals. From my Four Seasons’ mentors, and there were many, I learned about the importance of diligent preparation and teamwork. Most importantly, in all of my culinary adventures thus far, I learned that time and space are precious, to rest whenever possible, eat what is offered and, most of all, pull my weight on the line.
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial (president) of the Southwest Region and Bailli of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. 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.