Chef Tales

The Backstory Behind 20 Infamous Aspen Dishes

The most memorable of tales, including tasty tributes to Mom, Dad, the immortal BLT, and a couple of real killers.

By Tom Passavant November 1, 2015 Published in the Holiday 2015 issue of Aspen Sojourner

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Image: Matt Suby

1. Gnocchi salad with asparagus, mushrooms, and oregano at Town (Carbondale)

“I learned this from Nick Morfogen, the opening chef at Ajax Tavern,” says Town owner and executive chef Mark Fischer. “He and Michael Chiarello, another San Francisco chef, had come up with it, and the combination of greens with sautéed wild mushrooms and crisp gnocchi blew people away. The truffle oil didn’t hurt, either. At some point Ajax took it off the menu, but it was too good to die, so I stole it. The key is cake flour in the gnocchi dough, which makes them crispy outside and light inside. It’s been on my menu for eighteen years now, first at Six89 and now at Town. We swap the asparagus for green beans in summer and squash in the fall, just to stay seasonally appropriate, but no matter what, half the tables order at least one.”

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Image: Matt Suby

2. House-Smoked Trout at Pine Creek Cookhouse
Trout is a mainstay at innumerable Aspen restaurants, but nowhere else does it rise to the heights of Pine Creek Cookhouse’s version. “It’s been on the menu here for, like, thirty years,” says executive chef Chris Keating. Smoked in the kitchen over burnt hickory chips, the trout here is extravagantly meaty, moist, oak-colored, and deeply—but not overwhelmingly—smoky. “The secret is that after we brine it, it’s air-dried in the walk-in for several hours,” Keating confides. While the presentation changes all the time, look for it this winter as a smoked trout melt with Gruyère cheese.

3. Pasilla de Oaxaca Relleno at Zocalito
“Bullets will be raining,” Mexican locals warned Michael Beary when he told them he wanted to see these large, extremely rare chiles that grow on isolated farms in the valleys outside of Oaxaca. The growers don’t like to reveal their secrets, and it might be dangerous to go out there, they said. Beary, who owns Zocalito and cooks every day at his popular restaurant on the Hyman Mall, crowds his menu with ingredients and sauces seldom seen outside of Oaxacan home kitchens. Consider this large pasilla, smoke-dried over traditional Encino oak by the farmers themselves. It comes from a single grower named Julian, and it was a proposed trip to his farm that evoked the locals’ admonishments. At the restaurant, a pair of these chiles—barely spicy and lush with smoky, mysterious flavors—are stuffed with a mixture of tomatillos, onions, tomatoes, and Oaxacan mozzarella, battered and sautéed, then served over a vibrant yellow chilhuacle mole.

4. Macaroni and Cheese with Roasted Mushrooms at Rustique
It’s not uncommon for a restaurant dish to evoke the upbringing of a chef or owner, but at Rustique the story behind the enormously popular mac and cheese reflects both. Those with long memories of Aspen’s finest restaurants still fondly recall the glory days of Renaissance and, later, Range, both of which were run by Rustique owner Rob Ittner and his then–business partner and chef extraordinaire, Charles Dale. Not so coincidentally, Dale and Ittner spent formative years in Monaco and southern France, respectively, where Dale’s father worked and Ittner studied during high school. So when it came time to plan menus for their Aspen restaurants, they discovered they both had savored the Franco-Italian version of mac and cheese, made with a Mornay sauce (béchamel combined with Gruyère or another cheese). Fast-forward to 2015, and it’s a staple at Rustique, served with roasted wild mushrooms and a hint of truffle.

5. Killer 82 Roll at Maru
Aspen’s newest Japanese restaurant is the most eclectic of the bunch, with small and large plates that range far beyond sushi and sashimi. Duck—always a welcome change of pace locally—makes several appearances, as does stuffed quail. And if you like your sushi medium to well done, consider the small but deeply satisfying Killer 82 roll, an umami bomb filled with gochujang-braised short ribs, shiitake mushrooms, and grilled asparagus, topped with seared Kobe beef and a spicy teriyaki sauce. The name evokes the bad old days of the twentieth century, when our valley’s main highway was a nasty two-laner, and traffic accidents— especially head-on collisions in bad weather—and roadkill were far more common. What’s the connection to the sushi roll? “Well, we decided not to include a red sauce, but there’s plenty of red meat in it,” says sushi chef and partner (and Aspen native) Taylor Hale. “We try to have a sense of humor about what we’re doing.”

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Image: Matt Suby

6. New-Style Sashimi at Matsuhisa
“A lot of people think Nobu invented dishes like the miso cod and the hamachi with jalapeño, but that’s not true,” says Phil Tanaka, executive sushi chef at the Aspen branch of chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa’s globe-spanning restaurant empire. “These dishes have long been common in Japan, though certainly Nobu popularized them in the West. What really was created by Nobu-san is his new-style sashimi. Back when he had only one restaurant, in Beverly Hills, he sent out a beautiful platter of raw flounder to a diner, only to have it come back uneaten—the woman did not eat raw fish. And it came back with a request: ‘Can you cook it?’ At the moment, Nobu was holding a pan full of smoking-hot olive oil, so he quickly tossed in some sesame oil, yuzu soy, and some aromatics like sesame seeds, and poured it over the raw fish. It was barely cooked, but it changed the appearance, and the guest loved it. It did not take Nobu long to add it to the menu.”

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7. Killer Kiley Cocktail at Justice Snow’s
“Killer” Kiley was the father of Justice Snow’s owner Michele Kiley, and if this bourbon-based drink packs a wallop, well, that’s only fitting, as her dad was no slouch when it came to heavy artillery. “He got his nickname when he was the commander of a Sherman tank in the Second Armored Division in World War II,” she explains. “The division was called Hell on Wheels, and they landed in France two days after D-Day. They fought German Tiger tank squadrons.” Her father ended the war with three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star for bravery. “He lost a chunk of one shoulder from a grenade and a finger from another incident,” Kiley adds, and he loved good bourbon: so this manhattan-esque cocktail has been upgraded with Bib & Tucker bourbon, Amaro Nonino, Contratto Bianco vermouth, and aged bitters. Given Dad’s war record, he deserved nothing less.

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Image: Matt Suby

8. Southern-Style Fried Chicken, Monday Night Special at Smoke Modern Barbeque, Willits Town Center
“I grew up about thirty-five miles south of New Orleans, and this is my grandmother’s fried chicken recipe,” says Smoke owner and executive chef Jamie Theriot. “It’s made the traditional way: with an overnight soak in buttermilk and hot sauce, and then two breadings before it’s fried. My mother always said she could never get her mom’s fried chicken exactly right, so I brought her to Smoke a few months ago to try it. She took a couple of bites and said to me, ‘Your grandmother would be proud.’ It was a high point of my life.”

 9. Aspen Crud at the J-Bar
Remember when Aspen had soda fountains? If you do, you probably also are enjoying your senior season pass, but no matter. Aspen indeed used to have pharmacies and soda fountains: Carl’s, thankfully still with us, had a soda fountain until the 1970s. The J-Bar, easily Aspen’s most famous watering hole, was turned into a soda fountain (wink, wink) during Prohibition. And what did the locals order? A milkshake, of course: vanilla ice cream spiked with bourbon. It’s still on the menu, a potent reminder of Aspen’s wild and crazy youth.


10. Margherita Pizza at Elk Camp
“When I worked at the Aspen Mountain Club at the Sundeck, I had a cook who had just come back from Alaska,” says Andrew Helsley, executive sous chef of the Aspen Skiing Company’s on-mountain restaurants. “He had a pancake recipe I loved, including some sourdough starter that he said was over a hundred years old. I kept a pint of it in my fridge at home, and when we reopened Elk Camp at Snowmass, I knew that starter would make our pizza dough there really special. I always recommend that people try the individual artisan margherita pizza up there. It adds a depth of flavor that’s exactly what pizza’s supposed to taste like.”

11. Mad Dog Ranch Salad and BBQ Sauce at Jimmy’s
Before there was a Jimmy’s (back when there was just Jimmy), there were these two now-iconic dishes, and a bona fide rock star was responsible for both. Back in the mid-’90s, Joe Cocker and his wife, Pam, were completing construction on their 16,000-square-foot English manor house in Crawford, a tiny farming community in the mountains near Paonia, two hours southwest of Aspen. Jimmy Yeager was doing catering at the time, and Pam Cocker contacted him with a request to help with a party they were throwing for the locals.

“Joe loved tomatoes, which he later grew in the garden and greenhouse, and he loved spicy food,” recalls Yeager. “So I came up with a dressing to go on what was essentially a bacon, lettuce, and tomato salad, and also a spicy barbecue sauce. We named them both Mad Dog Ranch, in honor of Joe and Pam’s new home, which, of course, was itself named after Joe’s legendary Mad Dogs and Englishmen live album and tour.”

The party raged for twenty-four hours. “We cooked a dinner for 450 guests,” says Yeager. “There were tents and a tipi village set up, and 250 people slept over. The next morning we did a brunch as well. The salad and the barbecue sauce, which we serve with our meatloaf, have been on Jimmy’s menu since we opened in 1997.”

12. Open Face Breakfast Sandwich at Peach’s
“It all started with my grandmother,” says Peach’s co-owner David Roth. “She was a great cook, and she put fried eggs on top of everything from meatloaf to BLTs. That’s why I’m an egg freak today; I just loved the way the yolk would ooze down over everything, and then I would mop it up with the toasted bread.

“So when we were getting ready to open Peach’s, we came up with this open-face version of the bacon-lettuce-tomato, upgraded with arugula, heirloom tomatoes, and shaved parmesan. But the bread kept sliding around on the plate, so we tried putting some fruit jam underneath to anchor it down. We tried all kinds of things, but the moment we used peach butter, it was magic—the sweetness of the peaches plays off against the saltiness of the bacon and the bitterness of arugula, and the poached eggs ooze down over the whole thing. Today, it’s our signature dish, and nothing makes me happier than seeing people taking pictures of it with their phones, then smiling with their first bite.”


13. BBQ Shrimp and Grits at Eight K
“I’m from New Orleans, and my mom’s side of the family is French,” says Will Nolan, the executive chef at Eight K in the Viceroy Snowmass hotel. “My grandfather was Homer Dupuy, and over at his house we ate traditional Creole food all the time. His cook, a woman named Williana, was incredible, and I would watch her cook all the Creole classics, including shrimp and grits. At Eight K, I use Anson Mills heirloom grits, which take forever to cook at this elevation. There’s gulf shrimp, of course, and the sauce mixes white wine, shrimp stock, crab boil, Worcestershire, Tabasco, and a little butter. I’m so passionate about this dish. At this point, my cooks know that it’s got to be perfect every time—if it’s not, I can tell just by smelling it.”

14. Foie Gras Terrine at Meat & Cheese
There it sits in the meat counter at Meat & Cheese, the foie gras paté looking all innocent—a small light-brown oval bisected by a darker streak. This is the not-so-humble foie gras terrine produced in-house by head butcher Flip Wise, who learned to make a mean chicken liver paté when he worked at the Little Nell under esteemed head chef Ryan Hardy. “It has a layer of duck prosciutto running through it, and it’s flavored with juniper and allspice, which I feel balances the richness of the liver nicely, as well as adds a pleasant texture,” Wise says. If foie gras isn’t your jam, ask for the Hardy Boy terrine: an equally decadent chicken liver paté.

15. Butter-Aged Short Rib at Element 47
A lot of Aspen chefs come to town with impressive pedigrees, but very few count a stint at the world’s greatest restaurant on their résumés. That title is often bestowed on Copenhagen’s soon-to-close Noma, and the résumé belongs to Matt Padilla, chef de cuisine at the Nell’s Element 47. After culinary school, Padilla spent two months at Noma, and last spring he dropped in for a reunion. One result was the thirty-two-day short rib appetizer, in which he learned to age beef in its own fat, which tenderizes the meat without drying it out. It’s then cooked for three days, topped with a poached egg and maitake mushrooms, and served on days thirty-five to thirty-eight.

16. Octopus a la Plancha at Chefs Club
Tossing a cork into the stock to tenderize octopus before it’s cooked may seem like a pretty obscure bit of culinary sleight-of-hand. But chefs all over town seem to be onto this trick, every one of them offering a different version of its origin. Here’s our advice: head over to Chefs Club at the St. Regis Aspen Resort, and order the griddled octopus appetizer. Two bites in—seduced by the charred yet meltingly tender octopus, eggplant relish, green olives, and chorizo—we guarantee you won’t care whether they tossed in the whole wine bottle with the cork. Just be sure to ask for extra bread to wipe the plate.

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Image: Matt Suby

17. DLT sandwich at the Little Nell
“When I was growing up, my father loved to make sandwiches, and he was always playing around with variations on the traditional bacon-lettuce-tomato,” says Matt Zubrod, executive chef at the Little Nell hotel. “Once, on a camping trip, we hit on a duck, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, and the DLT was born. It has been a work in progress for me ever since; the latest twist is on the Element 47 bar menu, where it’s served with tomato jam and pickled mustard seeds. Unfortunately, my father passed away this past summer during the Food & Wine Classic weekend. He really inspired me to be a chef, so I am currently thinking of dishes we enjoyed together and making them as a tribute to him.”

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Image: Matt Suby

18. Tarte Flambée at Crêperie du Village
Chef Andreas Neufeld, who hails from Germany, has been busy adding bistro specialties to the already popular menu of crêpes. Among them is a dish not often seen in these parts: a classic Alsatian tarte flambée. Caramelized onions and chunks of bacon are set atop a crisp flatbread round slathered with crème fraîche. It’s a great $14 special during happy hour (4–6 p.m.), and, if you ask politely, they may even make one for you at dinnertime. Just don’t forget a bottle of rosé or Riesling.

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Image: Matt Suby

19. Secret Sandwich at Annette’s Mountain Bake Shop
“Back when we ran the Popcorn Wagon, I had a big long loaf of bread, and I was thinking of making some kind of special sandwich for lunch,” says Fino Docimo, master baker of the takeout joint he runs with his wife, Annette. “Ross, from the pet shop, asked me what I was doing, and I said it’s a secret—it’ll be ready in an hour. So he told all his friends, and they started coming up to the wagon and whispering, ‘I want the secret sandwich.’ So when we opened this bakery, we brought it with us. It’s a New Orleans–style muffuletta, with Italian cold cuts, provolone, and an olive-mix spread.”

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20. Moules Frites at The Wild Fig
My love of food, and especially curry, began at my grandmother’s house in Cape Town, South Africa, where I was born. Her name was Norma Harmon, and she had a doctorate in homeopathic medicine. By the time I was eight or nine years old, I’d get to ride in her VW bus out into the townships to her appointments with patients. We were always invited by my grandmother’s friends in the Indian community to go into their homes. We would sit on the floor around a low dining table with maybe twenty people, eating goat, mutton, chicken, and vegetable curries. Our plates were banana leaves picked out of the garden, and we’d use our hands instead of knives and forks.

My grandmother was a remarkable woman. She had her homeopathic practice for forty-six years and never charged a patient. She won an Albert Schweitzer Award for humanitarian work. After my grandfather died, she converted to Hinduism and eventually became a swami—she was Swami Narayani, or Mataji (mother) to the people closest to her. She opened three homeopathic clinics in India and Johannesburg, and her business was called Narayani Homeopathy. In her memory, I had a copy of her om symbol made in silver, and I wear it around my neck. It’s the only jewelry I wear besides my wedding ring.

My stepdad worked in a fishery, and we were so poor that we lived on the shells and heads of the crayfish he’d bring home in boxes after the tails—the valuable part—were removed. Or we’d gather mussels from the tidal flats and eat them every way imaginable, though my favorite was always with curry. Sometimes on weekends, I’d get to go out on one of the fishing boats, and we’d try to catch snook. They’re delicious fish, but they are ferocious fighters. Not only did we have to haul them in with hand lines, but I was a small kid, and the sea off the Cape of Good Hope was so rough—the waves were enormous.

When I was a teenager, I got a job as a waiter at the Mariner’s Wharf restaurant on Hout Bay. After a stint in the South African Air Force, I went back there. I was twenty and determined to save up enough money to leave the country and see the world. I would buy a bunch of chickens and cook them at home, then sell chicken sandwiches to the other staffers at the restaurant. I’d make them all sorts of ways, but my favorite was with curried mayo.

Even today I love curry, and really miss it. And I still love mussels. That’s why today at Wild Fig there’s a dish of curried mussels—moules frites—on the menu. It brings back so many memories for me. It reminds me who I am, and it keeps me grounded

. —As told by Craig Cordts-Pearce, co-owner, the Wild Fig, the Monarch SteakHouse, SteakHouse No. 316, and CP Burger
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