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Aspen's 'Revolutionary' New Restaurant: Is This The Future Of Fine Dining?

maroon bellsAspen is well known for many things, some more savory (its restaurants) than others (Charlie Sheen arrests). There's also the world-class skiing, but a person's gotta eat, and Aspen definitely boasts some of Colorado's finest restaurants. In a ski town, that's saying a lot.

In June, Aspen's restaurant scene just grew a little bigger, better and more groundbreaking, with the opening of Chefs Club by Food & Wine, at the tony St. Regis resort. The innovative restaurant, which opened to great fanfare during the 30th annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, marked the completion of a $40 million redesign of the resort.

The first restaurant of its kind worldwide, Chefs Club's concept is simple, almost like a long-term pop-up. A select group of four Food & Wine Best New Chefs curate a bi-annually-changing menu of "seasonally-inspired cuisine." The chefs will rotate on the same schedule, as well: the Fall/Winter talent will be announced November 15, via the restaurant's website and Facebook. Following their initial, one-week tenure the chefs will make appearances throughout their "term" to offer menu specials, and showcase the Chefs Club concept to guests and the local community.

Notice that I said the concept is simple. Having four guest chefs, who are most likely total strangers, design a compatible collaborative menu, and having it consistently executed to high standards by a kitchen staff of complete strangers with varying degrees of training is a monumental task. I freely admit I was more than a little dubious when I first heard about Chefs Club. I'm writing this piece now, nearly six months after its opening, because I wanted to follow-up with staff and guest chefs, and find out how things are going.

Chosen to inaugurate the restaurant and menu were former Best New Chefs: George Mendes (2011) of Aldea, located in Manhattan; James Lewis (2011) of Birmingham's Bettola; Alex Seidel (2010) of Fruition, in Denver; and Sue Zemanick (2008) of Gautreau's, in New Orleans.

I was able to wrangle an invite to the grand opening reception at Chefs Club last June, as well as dine there the following night. It's rare that I attend restaurant openings, because they're usually a bit of a clusterf--k, as the kitchen hasn't had time to work out the kinks or refine the menu. In this instance, however, I was curious to see how such a challenging concept would be carried out, especially given immense pressure for things to run smoothly.

chefs clubSome of the culinary industry's biggest players attended the grand opening and/or the Classic, including the Food & Wine editors and publisher, and some of the nation's most prestigious chefs, among them Jacques Pepin, José Andrés and Thomas Keller.

If you've never been to a restaurant opening, just know it's an ulcer-inducing event for any chef, no matter how experienced. The decor, service and every single dish is scrutinized by both diners and press, and in the weeks that follow, it's critical that any flaws be ironed out. Yes, it's just food, but it's also the livelihood of dozens of people, from dishwashers to investors. Chefs/restaurateurs face a lot of pressure with the opening of a new place.

The biggest challenge, as I saw it, was finding chefs willing to relinquish control (or their egos), because unlike a normal restaurant, Chefs Club means entrusting an unfamiliar staff to carry out their vision. That means it's up to the Chefs Club powers that be to find participating chefs who fully understand the concept of collaboration, and are capable of letting go to a certain degree.

Fortunately, St. Regis Aspen/Chefs Club Executive Chef Thomas Riordan is equally adept at ensuring his kitchen does right by guest chefs. Says General Manager Paul Duce, "I think this is a revolutionary concept, and it's amazing to see it all come together so beautifully. [Riordan] has a very difficult job, and our team works so well together."

Based on my experience, which included dining at Chefs Club on its third night of operation, the team kicks ass. In fact, I was astounded by how smooth the service was (the wait staff and sommelier were also genuinely friendly and enthusiastic; no pretense whatsoever). I sat in one of the seats located right in front of the open kitchen, and was amazed by how calm everyone seemed to be, guest chefs included. In fact, there was a lot of camaraderie and joking around.

As for my dinner, it wasn't flawless (no meal is), but it was very, very good. I enpastajoyed a luscious Duck Confit Crostini from Chef Zemanick; Charred Mediterranean Octopus with cannellini beans, local lovage and pancetta by Chef Lewis; Colorado Lamb Saddle with Fruition Farms (Seidel's sheep dairy) ricotta gnocchi, baby artichokes, and pine nut gremolata (Chef Seidel), and for dessert, an outrageous Malt Chocolate Semi-freddo with peanut butter fudge, toasted marshmallow, and graham cracker crumbs (Chef Zemanick). The sommelier graciously paired wines for all of my courses.

I left not only full, but very satiated, and convinced that Chefs Club might be onto something. Couldn't this concept provide a feasible way for talented young chefs to avoid the pitfall of opening their own restaurants before they're ready (emotionally or financially)? A way for older, more settled chefs to eliminate the stress, long hours, and administrative b.s. involved with owning a restaurant, but still allow them to do the thing they're passionate about, which is cooking? An opportunity for experienced, savvy restaurateurs to keep their places relevant and exciting, long after the opening rush has passed? What about hosting guest chefs from around the world, as a sort of educational exchange for professional cooks and armchair travel experience for diners?

A month later, I asked Chef Seidel his thoughts when first approached by Chefs Club. "It's a great concept, if challenging," he said. "Being the first group of chefs meant there were a lot of unknowns, and participating chefs need to understand the level of commitment needed for this."

If being a part of Chefs Club means time away from his own kitchen, farm and family, and entrusting that his staff will run Fruition as if it were their own, Seidel feels the benefits outweigh the potential risks.

"The opportunity to cook for so many different people, and work with great chefs from across the country is amazing. At my restaurant, we don't cook with any attitude or ego, and this shouldn't be any different. The four of us got a chance to hang out, learn from one another, and work together, and I gained three new friends out of the experience."
chefs club
Other things to know about Chefs Club
The editors of Food & Wine have a hand in putting together custom wine and cocktail lists to coincide with the menus, while Jim Meehan, one of the nation's top mixologists (PDT, New York), creates an original selection of seasonal cocktails (I'll vouch for their excellence).

Don't have any preconceptions about the menu, and be open to a diverse, but harmonious, melding of cuisines (there's a three-course tasting menu with wine pairings for $85).

If you want to dine when a specific guest chef is in the house, check Chefs Club's website and Facebook page for special events.

The elegant, white-walled dining room – done up in a mod ski chalet aesthetic, replete with giant snowflake cut-outs on the ceiling – features a long, low bar and row of seats in front of the open kitchen. If you enjoy watching the inner workings of a restaurant, reserve a seat here. There's also a 24-seat patio, and 99 seats inside, including a communal table.

Make a reservation, regardless.

Enjoy yourself. This isn't a pretentious, hushed temple of gastronomy. It offers a convivial atmosphere, and the concept and vibe are all about having fun, and a spirit of adventure. Cheers to that.

The bar is open to the public, not just diners. Says Duce, "A lot of the time, people will poke their heads in and say they're just looking, and I'll invite them in to check out our kitchen, or pour them a bit of Prosecco. We're here to serve the community, and everyone should feel free to come have a drink at our bar."

For information and tickets to the 31st annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, June 14-16, 2013, click here.

[Photo credit: Maroon Bells, Flickr user mland329]

Filed under: Climbing, Arts and Culture, Hiking, Paddling, Skiing, Business, Festivals and Events, Food and Drink, North America, United States, News, Luxury Travel

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