Vail: Secret suppers start to sizzle
VAIL, Colorado – Being the first to discover something – an extra divey (in a good way) bar in Denver where PBR’s are a nickel from 10 to 10:30 a.m., or a fresh-faced underground band with an obscure capital letter combination name – feels good. It’s that insatiable need to be first – the first to know, first to try, first to buy – that Hush dinners, a six-month-old-but-still-hot-to-trot Denver dining trend, taps into.Half-secret, invite-only supper clubs aren’t necessarily new, but they’re still intriguing. Underground dinners reportedly first sprung up in food-centric cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco. The idea is to eat an exceptional meal in an unlikely place with other people who, like you, knew the secret knock.Turns out the faces behind Hush Events – Phil Armstrong and Chance Humphrey – have a little Eagle County restaurant history under their belts, which is likely why they’ve already recruited line cooks from two Vail restaurants for Denver-area dinners. The business partners met while working for Brian Nolan at The Chophouse in Beaver Creek in 2007. There’s another Vail component, too. Come July or August, the boys will begin holding at least one Hush dinner in Eagle County a month. As to where that first Vail event will be held, or who will cook for it, Armstrong won’t yet say.
Armstrong got the idea for the invite-only dinner club after working for a string of egomaniac chefs, including Chicago celebrity chef Jimmy Sneed at SugarToad. “While he was a knowledgable chef, he was one of the most rotten people I’ve ever met,” Armstrong said during a phone interview Monday. “He’d just berate his staff members.”Despite that, the kitchen was filled with passionate, talented line cooks who kept the food flowing to hungry diners even when Sneed himself was hardly in the kitchen.”These guys would work six days a week, 12 to 14 hour days,” Armstrong said. “It was time somebody did something for all the underlings, the sous chefs, slaving away in restaurants but never getting recognition. The idea was for them to step out of their kitchens and have one night in a culinary playground where they could cook their own food.”The other component to Hush is an over-the-top, unexpected venue, which so far have included an exotic car gallery for a dinner titled “Fast Cars, Slow Foods,” a high-end furniture gallery called Studio Como and a tent on the roof of the Denver Art Museum. Upcoming dinner locations also include a beef ranch in Boulder and a Denver music venue, Armstrong said.Chase Wilbanks, formerly the chef de cuisine of La Tour, headed up one of the dinners at Studio Como at the end of April. Paul Ferzacca, the chef-owner of La Tour, and his wife Lourdes, attended the event.”It’s definitely a cool idea,” Ferzacca said. “It was out of the ‘restaurant box,’ per se, due to the fact that there was limited kitchen equipment to prep, cook, serve and clean.”There’s also a very communal aspect to the experience, in that everyone is having the same course, at the same time, said Cody Kennedy, the director of operations for La Tour and ZaccaZa!, who helped Wilbanks plate the food.
The most recent Hush dinner took place Saturday night atop the Denver Art Museum. Two sous chefs and five line cooks from Vail’s Sweet Basil whipped up a “spring chicken” themed five-course dinner with wine pairings for 85 attendees.”The chefs are all incredibly talented,” said Westminster resident Kim Bauer, who attended the dinner with her husband. It was the couple’s second Hush dinner and the sublime food, combined with a chance to dine with “a group of people who all enjoy a unique and special dining experience in a surprise setting,” is what prompted her to sign up again, she said.So, if Hush is so set on profiling unheard of line cooks, why cherry pick from two of Vail’s most notable restaurants?”There is an element of business to this,” Armstrong said. “The name of the restaurant attracts people, and sells tickets, but we don’t want Paul Ferzacca to cook, nor do we want Paul Anders to cook. We want the people quietly running the show to cook.”That isn’t something you hear very often.Not only that, Armstrong said, he wants them to cook the food that appeals to them. On Saturday that included dishes like asparagus and bacon (made from smoked chicken skin) salad with artichokes and grilled frisee, all topped with a one-hour poached egg. But it was the chicken liver mousse agnolotti (Italian ravioli) with kohlrabi, fava beans, pea tendrils and tamari mushroom broth that Sweet Basil Sous Chef Christopher Yomans liked best, he said.
Anders, Sweet Basil’s executive chef, was first approached about the dinner in early April, which makes sense because its the restaurant’s head chef who will have to deal with being short staffed on a Saturday night. Hush organizers pay for all the food – the budget ranges from $1,300 to $1,500 – as well as the wine, and throw $400 or $500 to the cooks at the end of the night “to go out and get some beers on afterwards,” Armstrong said. Around a $1,000 also goes towards a food-oriented nonprofit group, Armstrong said.When the cooks were asked if they’d like to participate, they agreed immediately, Yomans said.”It’s a chance to try out your own food and explore a new venue,” said Yomans, whose kitchen moniker is Cupcake. “Plus it gives you some very practical work experience as far as going to another city and producing a menu.”Denver media outlets have covered the story a few times and Bruce Schoenfeld, the wine editor for Travel + Leisure, attended Saturday’s dinner. Cooking Light and Sunset Magazine also requested invites to future events, Armstrong said. So despite the name Hush, the word is most definitely out.High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 748-2984 or email@example.com.