Vail Daily column: When chefs sin

Suzanne Hoffman
Special to the Daily
Executive Chef Jason Harrison cooking up some of his favorite "sin

Recently, someone asked me, “What’s your favorite food sin?” My muted response was a blank stare while my brain began to sizzle as it processed years of gustatory sensations. I could answer quickly what I disliked the most — clear soup with an unborn chick floating in it placed before me in Wuhan, China, in 2000 – but my food sins are so many!

Perhaps it’s just my age or that I’m blessed with years of international travel, but the question stumped me. There’s so much I love to eat. Considering my difficulty finding a quick response, I thought it would be fun to posit a similar question to professionals who live and breathe food, creating sinful dishes for the rest of us: chefs on both sides of the Atlantic. Here’s goes.

The Question

If you need not consider money, calories and accessibility, what foods — savory and sweet — are your food sins and why? The answers ranged from popcorn and vanilla ice cream to a desire to taste the world’s exotic street foods. Read along and find out who said what about what.

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Jason Harrison, executive chef, Four Seasons Resort, Vail

The 2013 Vail Cochon 555 champ and Prince of Porcine as I call him, Canadian-born Jason Harrison, opened the Four Seasons’ sprawling 12,000 square foot kitchen December 2010. Although Harrison is in charge of all dining experiences in the luxury hotel, it’s what happens in its signature “American steakhouse” Flame that excites him the most. He’s a meat freak, pure and simple.

Hailing from Ottawa, Harrison is bored with foie gras, lobster and all the things he’s created in his 5-diamond restaurants. He “loves and respects the simplicity of simple, honest cuisine.” Hearing that, it was no surprise when Harrison’s savory answer came back, “steak.”

Great food memories are indelible. Harrison’s savory sin harkens to a meal he enjoyed in his last days as executive chef at Bellagio before he moved to Vail from Sin City. Describing it as “the funkiest and best piece of meat” he’s ever had, the “amazing nine month dry aged prime rib-eye” is what Harrison considers the sin he wishes to commit again. It’s no wonder he dry ages meat in-house at Flame.

Asked about sweets, Harrison’s answer was “little fresh fruit French pastries” from Paris’ oldest patisserie, Stohrer. Looks like another indelible food memory. Like so many of us whose appreciation of food is as much about place as it is about taste, Harrison believes the setting contributed to his sinful memories of these pastries.

In 1725, Nicolas Stohrer, creator of “Baba au Rhum,” became Versailles’ pastry chef to Marie Leszczynska, wife of Louis XV of France. After wowing the royals with his creations, Stohrer opened his humble Parisian pastry shop in 1730. Despite being the patisserie of royals, his shop survived the French Revolution. The French do love their pastries. Why let a little thing like a revolution spoil a great thing? No doubt, the ambiance and sheer honesty of flavors combined with the shop’s rich history made these flavor bombs Chef Harrison’s favorite sweets.

Nick Haley, co-owner and executive chef, Zino Ristorante II, Edwards

Nick Haley is another lover of culinary simplicity. Haley’s educational endeavors took him to Costigliole d’Asti, Italy where he plunged into studying Piemonte’s spectacularly simple epicurean treasurers. However, Haley’s love of food is not limited to the cucina italiana. The more exotic, the better.

When it comes to sinning on food, Haley gives little consideration to money or calories. Isn’t that what sinning’s about anyway? One mustn’t consider consequences to truly sin. Haley’s sin is to gorge on sushi and then order a meal to go! His big splurge, however, would be to travel the word and eat street food, particularly in Japan, Vietnam and, of course, Italy. As to sweets, Haley’s not big on desserts. I suppose it would mean less sushi in one sitting if he was to indulge in sweets!

Kirk Weems, executive chef, Beaver Creek Mountain Dining

On most mornings from November to April, Kirk Weems makes the final leg of his commute to Allie’s Cabin on Beaver Creek Mountain on snowshoes. In summer, hiking takes the place of snowshoeing for exercise when his work moves down to the more easily accessible Beaver Creek Golf Clubhouse.

Weems shared Allie’s kitchen with Chef John Besh during the last two Januarys during Beaver Creek Food and Wine festivals. Last summer, Weems commanded the massive food operation needed for VIPs and cyclists at the Beaver Creek finish line of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, something he will repeat this August.

Perhaps that’s why the soft-spoken, unassuming chef told me I might think he’s crazy that popcorn is lifelong favorite food. Why is that so surprising when Brazilian-born Orville Redenbacher gave us “gourmet” popping corn? He loves to have popcorn one to two times a week with real butter and Kosher salt. All that hiking and snowshoeing pay off in popcorn, I suppose.

When it comes to sweet sins, Weems happily assumes the role of Guinea pig and asks his chef wife, Heather, to experiment with a new recipe. Amaretto peach pie with Palisade peaches from a roadside stand is one of his summer sweet sins. Carrot cake is another of Weems’ favorites. Heather made one for their wedding cake and she still bakes one three to four times a year. Everyone needs a plan B, C or D and Weems’ is Ben & Jerry’s ice cream when he really wants to sin. Popcorn and ice cream. Not bad sins at all.

Steven Topple, executive chef, The Shore Lodge, McCall, Idaho

Growing up in the land of Cajun cuisine, I was told British food was really bad. My first experiences with it in 1975 pretty much confirmed that. However, over the last four decades British chefs have managed to put Great Britain, particularly London, on the culinary map.

Steve Topple is a talented British chef whose culinary prowess charmed Beaver Creek Club members and guests at Beano’s for five years and dinners at the Sonnenalp Resort in Vail for the last two winters. Particularly fond of fish, Topple would delight mighty Neptune himself with his seafood creations. Now at the Shore Lodge in McCall, Idaho, Topple is enjoying being a little closer to the Pacific, home to so many of his sea-to-table products.

Topple is another ice cream lover. He says he’s “a sucker for those pints of Haagen-Daz” vanilla ice cream. It’s apparently one of those “just one bite and I can’t stop” sort of experiences for him. After a long 13-hour day in the kitchen, it’s his favorite fix.

As to savory, salami and prosciutto are his sins. If he sees it as an antipasto on any menu, he orders it. Sitting on patio, sipping wine and enjoying antipasti is one of his favorite sins.

More sins to come

Not surprisingly, nearly every chef I quizzed, answered me with not one – as you can see – but many sinful epicurean desires. I expected to hear things like caviar and foie gras among the list of sins. I have many more fun chef sins to tell next week. In the meantime, go out and have a summer food sin! It’s good for the soul.

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