Vail chefs and sommeliers team up to raise money for Roundup River Ranch

Suzanne Hoffman
Behind the Scenes
Last moment of levity shared between Executive Sergio Howland of Leonora and Ronny Valladares and Executive Chef Nick Haley of Zino before the dinner bell was rung (left to right).
Alisha Quinn Bosco | Special to the Daily |

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series. Check back next week to read the second installment.

Each summer and winter, charity dinners, large and small, fill Vail Valley social calendars. All are for great causes near and dear to supporters’ hearts. The power of food as a unifying force provides an opportunity for those who have already opened their hearts to open their wallets. Many charities heavily rely on these events and for good reason. Live auction paddle-raising raises much-needed funds in a world of growing demand and shrinking resources.

Generous chefs are important fundraiser donors. To thank supporters and create the perfect philanthropic atmosphere, take-out just won’t do. Local chefs enthusiastically answer the call to donate precious time and resources. There’s nothing like a tantalizing culinary magnet to attract attendees.

However, other than a mention in the menu or program or, perhaps, in an advertisement, the names of chef donors are quickly forgotten. But these culinary artists are not catering the events as paid service providers; they are donors, make no mistake.

Support Local Journalism

With that in mind, here is a behind-the-scenes look at the Roundup River Ranch’s third annual summer fundraiser, A Grateful Harvest. Unlike last year when I went behind the scenes with no connection to the event, this year, during a lapse of sanity, I agreed to coordinate the food and beverage component. For the past nine months, I’ve worked day and night, even when I sought refuge in Italy in July. Such is the reach of email.

It all came together Aug. 17. The final, nail-biting months were behind us. Five gifted local chefs – Paul Ferzacca (La Tour), Kelly Liken (Restaurant Kelly Liken), Sergio Howland (Leonora), Nick Haley (Zino Ristorante) and Jason Harrison (Flame at the Four Seasons) — and their teams, coordinating chef Heather Weems, three sommeliers and tireless Roundup River Ranch volunteers and employees, wrote a new chapter in the story of Vail Valley fundraisers.

A seriously fun charity

The Roundup River Ranch is part of the “Serious Fun Children’s Network” of camps Paul Newman founded in 1988. It’s a joyous place for seriously ill children to have life-changing experiences. Unlike most of the charities in Vail Valley, Roundup River Ranch serves local needs and reaches far beyond Eagle County. Through their main recruiting partner, Children’s Hospital in Denver, campers from Colorado, Nebraska, Utah, Kansas, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana and Idaho come to Roundup River Ranch to “experience the joys of childhood camp.” Truth be told, the camp provides life-changing experiences for counselors and volunteers, too.

Campers attend tuition free, placing huge demands on the camp’s operating budget. This no-tuition policy ensures no financial need, large or small, stands between campers and thrill-of-a-lifetime experiences. Now in its third year, A Grateful Harvest raises nearly a third of the camp’s annual operating funds.

Farmhouse fine dining

Entertaining more than 300 donors presents great challenges, given the dearth of event venues in the valley. Hundreds of people are usually seated in ubiquitous, windowless hotel ballrooms. A few creative organizations, however, transform unusual places into venues. The Youth Foundation hosts hundreds at its annual fundraiser in a Vail Valley Jet Center hangar. For the last two years, Edwards Interfaith Chapel volunteers turned the chapel’s large community hall into a beautiful European-themed dining room. Where to host a fundraiser for a camp? Why, at the camp, of course.

To solve the conundrum, the board opted to use Trent’s Cookhouse, the camp’s dining hall. Although it’s a beautiful setting that offers guests an opportunity to experience camp, this solution comes with challenges.

First, the camp’s location. Located north of Dotsero on Colorado River Road, the camp is an hour drive from Vail. However, once the turn at Dotsero is made, Mother Nature entertains all comers with late summer beauty as they drive along the river.

Transforming Trent’s Cookhouse, which normally serves a maximum of 60 campers and 40 counselors into a fine dining venue for more than 300 people was one of the greatest challenges. Two years ago, Vail restaurateur and long-time camp supporter Kelly Liken served 220 people at the inaugural fundraiser in the just-completed dining hall. This year, 305 people enjoyed farmhouse fine dining.

Harvesting chefs, sommeliers

Everyone knows the old English adage, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” That can be a risk in a small kitchen with five executive chefs who are used to cooking the broth themselves. But when the chefs can rely on a talented, well-organized coordinating chef to make everything run smoothly, a harmonious culinary symphony results. That’s not to say there weren’t hiccups along the way, but at least when the road got bumpy, Weems helped absorb the shock.

With her calm, professional demeanor, Weems was the hub in the wheel around which the chefs were connected. Her attention to detail and respect for the chefs’ time and resources over the past few months created an atmosphere of camaraderie, not competition. She was a buffer that I don’t usually experience in these sorts of collaborative events.

The resulting synergistic relationship between the culinary professionals contributed to not only the event’s success, but also the enjoyment of those working hard behind the scenes. In short, we had some serious fun knowing who would benefit from the harvest of the fruits of our labor.

The chefs were not alone in the kitchen. Three local sommeliers jumped at the opportunity to pair and help source the wines needed for each course. For years, organizers of culinary festivals and fundraisers rolled their eyes and turned a deaf ear on me when I complained about the lack of attention given to wine pairings at their dinners.

I believe failing to properly pair epicurean creations with the right wines is akin to hanging a Picasso in a Porta Potty. It’s a total waste of a masterpiece. It’s also terribly unfair to wine producers not to show their wines correctly, particularly small family-owned wineries that donate some of their small productions for various causes. Fortunately, the organizing committee humored me and let me try something different. Needless to say, I felt it was high time to shine the spotlight on the oenological talent in the valley. To me, they are the underappreciated gastronomic professionals amongst us.

For the task, I approached Jarrett Quint, sommelier at the Sonnenalp Resort in Vail; Greg Eynon, co-owner and wine director of vin48 in Avon; and cocktail alchemist Steven Teaver, manager and sommelier of Flame at the Four Seasons in Vail. The trio enthusiastically agreed to help.

So how did it all come together? What did the chefs serve and the sommeliers pour? Come back next week and I’ll tell you about the food, the wine and the joy everyone felt when the grateful harvest was complete.

Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are and Email comments about this story to

Support Local Journalism