David Burke is pondering what it takes to succeed with a new restaurant in a town like Aspen. The high-profile chef, who has his name on seven other places around the country and recently was a finalist on Top Chef Masters, is about to open David Burke Kitchen in the heart of downtown. The place is bound to cause a commotion: with over 250 seats, a patented dry-aging room for meats, complete with walls of pink Himalayan salt in full view of the dining room, and spectacular views from terraces on three sides of the building, David Burke Kitchen could probably serve nothing but toast and draw a crowd.
At least for a while. Aspen is one tough restaurant town. In recent years it has chewed up and spit out nationally famous brands such as Il Mulino, Ruth’s Chris, and Todd English’s Olives. On the other hand, both locals and visitors have embraced other out-of-towners, most notably Matsuhisa. Why do some big names fail while others succeed?
“In order to do well, our place has to be comfortable, unique, and delicious,” says the voluble Burke. “We’ve got to offer a style that you can’t get down the street, and that takes a lot of work. You have to make sure things don’t get stale. Everyone will come in to check it out the first year, but it’s year two that’s hard.”
So far, Burke seems to have made the right moves. His son, Connor, has been on-site and will be one of the managers. And he’s hired away a well-regarded local chef, Matt O’Neil, from Ajax Tavern. “Being seasonal is important,” says O’Neil, who brings well-established connections to local food producers. “The menu will be constantly evolving. Our attitude is that it can always be better.”
These are good signs. Places that don’t gain traction in Aspen often do nothing more than clone their other menus, dispensing with a real chef and getting by with far less expensive line cooks.
“One advantage of being from out of town is that I have my finger on the pulse of food trends all over the country,” notes Burke. He also brings a well-honed set of his own razzle-dazzle style and dishes. Burkean menu mainstays will include pretzel-crusted crab cakes, his potted duck and foie gras appetizer, a short-rib cavatelli pasta dish, and his copyrighted cheesecake pops for dessert. “Also look for lots of tableside activity, like making the kale salad with farro and local apples to order at the table,” says Burke. “And the ‘angry lobster brochette’ will be served on a three-foot skewer cooked in the hearth oven.”