Vail Valley: It takes a kitchen
VAIL, Colorado ” If it only took one chef, restaurants in Colorado’s Vail Valley would save heaps on labor costs. (And diners would wait forever for their food.) But peek into any professional kitchen and there’s at least a handful, if not a whole swarm, of chefs, cooks and dishwashers. And every last one of them has a key part to play.
“For years and years and years I was always on the line, too terrified to leave,” said David Walford, executive chef and owner of Splendido at the Chateau in Beaver Creek. “I’m fortunate enough now to be able to afford two great guys. I still do a lot in the kitchen, but it’s a pleasure to be able to step aside a little.”
The two great guys to whom he’s referring are chef de cuisine Brian Ackerman and sous chef Quintin Wicks, who, with the help of the kitchen crew, implement Walford’s vision down to the last drop of chive oil. And whether or not Walford is in the kitchen, the person feasting in the dining room receives the same food and service Splendido has become known for. So it is in many local establishments.
Kevin Nelson isn’t just the executive chef of Terra Bistro; he’s also the general manager. That means he’s tending to the front of the house as much as he is the kitchen. Adam Hand has worked for him for three years at Terra, but has worked in kitchens much longer than that.
“Kevin’s got a hand in everything we do,” he said. “He’s not in the kitchen all of the time, but he’s always giving us input. He trusts us completely.”
“The kitchen runs as well when he’s not here as when he is,” Hand explained. “We’re all professionals. Between four or five chefs in the kitchen we’ve got 100-plus years of experience. We all take pride in what we do. It’s a pride thing for us.”
Michael Parker, the evening sous chef, agreed with Hand.
“The kitchen functions amazingly well,” Parker said. “We all have a grasp on what Kevin wants. It’s his show – our job is to replicate it so everybody in the dining room sees the same thing.”
Over at La Tour, chef de cuisine Chase Wilbanks and sous chef Tony Oliviera work closely with executive chef and owner Paul Ferzacca. Ferzacca also owns ZaccaZa! in Avon, in addition to coaching Battle Mountain High School’s culinary team. Though his name is synonymous with La Tour he’s not always there ” and he doesn’t have to be.
“I’ve worked for him for five years, on and off,” Wilbanks explained. “He trusts me, trusts us. Plus, he comes in for tastings. He sits down and writes notes, critiques.”
“You’ve got to have trust in the people you surround yourself with,” Ferzacca said. “It’s not just about me: It’s the team. There are the managers’ meetings, policies and procedures. There’s a method to the madness.”
Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s expletive-ridden tirades might make for good television, but that boat doesn’t float in the valley. With more fine-dining restaurants per square inch than a Southern town has churches, Eagle County offers too many employment opportunities for good chefs to take abuse for long.
Ferzacca has had plenty of experience becoming not just a chef but a mentor and teacher. He’s a volunteer with the local high school’s culinary team, and helped 20 high-school students collectively earn $1.5 million in culinary scholarships. The La Tour kitchen is small and energetic, but it’s not stressful or mean-spirited.
Wilbanks had a bad experience working for an egotistical master chef years ago. “He was a yeller,” he said. “I swore I’d never be like that. We have a very calm kitchen.”
“Both Chase and I have been around and seen different things,” Olivieras said. “We’ve worked and gone to school in New York, New Orleans, Chicago, France. You don’t have to yell to get something done.”
Just west in Beaver Creek, Splendido’s Ackerman unknowingly echoes the La Tour chefs’ sentiments.
“We like it quiet,” he said. “Peace and quiet is good.”
At the very best local restaurants consistency is key, and that doesn’t happen without a well-honed team of like-minded culinary conspirators.
“The menu is a collaboration of all of us,” Ackerman said, nodding his head to encompass the four or five cooks prepping their stations for the night’s dinner service. “We encourage people to keep it interesting.”
“It’s good to have participation from people who’ve been around different places,” Wicks added. “If you empower someone, they’re going to come back with more interesting ideas.”
Nelson changes Terra Bistro’s menu often, adding dishes and taking others away. Whether he’s ready for an entirely new menu at the beginning of the season, or he simply wants to tweak what’s there, the process starts in the same way. He and his crew sit down at a table and talk.
“When we go to menu development, one guy writes it all down,” Rob Lewis said. “He gives us a list of ingredients. We discuss them. It fuels itself.”
Lewis, the a.m. sous chef, is that guy who never sits still. He doesn’t fidget; he’s just always working on something. His shift ends at 3 p.m., when the evening crew starts shuffling in. He and Parker have a meeting to catch up on what’s going on in terms of the kitchen.
“Our meetings are usually me running around behind him,” Parker said. “He’s got an amazing head for food.”
Parker’s not the only one who likes who he works with.
“It’s not me more than anyone,” Lewis said. “Josh our baker is really instrumental in what we do here.”
Josh has created many of the items that have become intrinsic to what Terra Bistro is all about. He’s a fan of sprouted quinoa, known as the “mother grain” for its nutritional profile. He’s worked it into several dishes, from cinnamon rolls to tiramisu (called Terra-misu, of course).
Recently they had a powwow about vegan dishes, which Nelson wants to incorporate into the menu.
“We all bolted to the kitchen,” Parker said, “trying to dazzle the chef. Sometimes he loves them and sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he turns them into something else.”
The relationship between the executive chef and his or her second-in-command is essential. Walford likens it to a marriage.
“We have to see eye to eye,” he said. “That’s not to say I want him to be a little clone of me. I want him to challenge me, and I know he wants me to challenge him.”
“Chef and Brian have long meetings,” Wicks said, referring to Walford and Ackerman. “They mastermind things.”
But for shorter meetings, they just make gnocchi. The labor-intensive dumplings are made in small batches at Splendido. Ackerman and Walford, or Ackerman and Wicks, roll and shape them together while going through a long checklist of kitchen business.
No matter how talented a chef is and how thorough his training, it’s still difficult for a chef-owner to let someone else take the reins even for a night. But Ferzacca knew what he was dealing with when he promoted Wilbanks to chef de cuisine.
“It was easy with Chase since he worked with me for three-and-a-half years,” Ferzacca said. “Tony we took a chance on, because he came here specifically for the job. He came out and staged with us, then we hired him.”
And it was a good call.
At Splendido the kitchen starts coming alive around noon. The later it gets, the busier it feels. Former journalist and current apprentice Peter Bruce slices onions for salads. Pastry chef Dorothee Drouet reaches up to the shelves over her head, looking for a stack of pristine stainless-steel bowls. Line cooks and newlyweds Antonio Hererra and Nadia Santa Maria prep their stations, saute and hot apps respectively. Santa Maria is usually on the grill, but as in any kitchen some chefs have to wear multiple toques. Hererra also prefers the grill ” he loves grilling steaks.
“The only problem with that is he’s a really good fish cook,” Wicks said with a shrug. “So we can’t take him off that.”
Hererra doesn’t mind. “It’s all pretty awesome,” he said. “We’re a team here. We all think about the details.”
Someone quite adept at the details is Ricardo Contreras, the prep cook who works at the back of the kitchen in the sunshine from one of the kitchen’s few windows. He’s been with Walford for 10 years, and doesn’t intend to work elsewhere.
“He makes all the stocks, so he creates the base of everything we do here,” Ackerman said.
“He’s a stock master, a butchery master,” Wicks said. “I’ve never seen anyone break down lobsters as quickly or as consistently as he does.”
What’s Conterras’ secret?
“It’s easy, I don’t have any secrets,” he said, his hands quickly snapping the stems off baby spinach.
Despite his longevity in the kitchen, he’s none too chatty with the rest of the chefs.
“I don’t think he even spoke to me my first two years here,” Wicks said, laughing. “He wants to know you’re going to stick around for a while, and to see that you’re really talented.”
And perhaps that’s the greatest compliment of all: when a long-term prep cook, secure in his own skills and place, grants a chef admittance to the inner circle of a restaurant’s heart and soul. Bon appetit amigo.
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