Flavor that lasts
February 10, 2004
It’s the flavors at Blue Maize that have turned an upstart restaurant founded by two boyhood friends into an Aspen mainstay – no easy feat in a resort that chews up and spits out dining establishments with regularity.
The tiny restaurant that’s big on bold, colorful, flavorful dishes has earned a local following and a place in Aspen’s competitive restaurant scene, where the discerning tourist has no shortage of options.
Partners Thomas Colosi and Richard Chelec have hit upon an admittedly unusual – actually, Chelec calls it “weird” – pairing of dishes from the American Southwest and Latin America. The combination is as intriguing as head chef Colosi’s blend of ingredients, colors and textures – the hallmark of every dish on the small menu.
With just 400 square feet of kitchen space, Colosi doesn’t have room to expand his fare. Instead, everything on the menu has to be a hit.
“We don’t have any dogs on our menu,” he declared.
Diners tend to agree, choosing from dishes like Oaxacan-style fish with a tomato lime-butter sauce, rice, beans and tortillas or a banana leaf-wrapped sweet potato tamale with sauteed vegetable medley.
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The cuisine sprang from the two men’s travels – Chelec’s exploration of Latin America and Colosi’s stint in Australia, of all places, where he landed in the kitchen of a place called the Rattlesnake Grill, specializing in food of the American Southwest.
But the partnership really started much earlier. The two men have been friends since they met in middle school, growing up in the Washington, D.C., area.
Chelec, who went on to study business while Colosi went straight into the restaurant world after high school, suggested they both move to Aspen to work for a new luxury hotel in town.
“Richard called me up one day and said, `Hey, they’re opening up the Ritz. Let’s go to Aspen,’ ” Colosi said.
When the Ritz-Carlton, now the St. Regis, opened its doors in November 1992, Chelec was answering the phone and taking reservations, while Colosi was tossing salads for $9 an hour, having taken a huge pay cut in exchange for what he hoped was a better lifestyle.
By 1995, they’d both worked a host of local jobs when Colosi left for Australia and Chelec headed to Central America. They eventually regrouped in Aspen and pondered their futures. Colosi was working at a ski shop by that time.
“We were like, well, what are we going to do?” Chelec recalled.
The restaurant above Little Ollie’s on South Hunter Street, a popular lunch/dinner spot called the Silver City Grill, was for sale.
They bit the bullet and bought the business.
“It was a way to stay in Aspen. It was either that or leave,” Chelec said. “We really wanted to stay, so we took a chance.
“We always wanted to do a restaurant. We just thought we’d be older,” he added.
When Blue Maize debuted in 1997, Chelec was 29 years old and Colosi was 32.
Friends, family and Vectra Bank invested in the venture – they’re still investors, Chelec noted, grinning.
Chelec’s then-girlfriend Susan (they’re now married) handled the interior design, with its Southwestern washed walls and tiled floor. Colorfully painted stools on the outside deck handle overflow crowds in the summer months. Inside, the restaurant seats about 40 people; the bar offers seating for three.
Chelec tends bar, mixing margaritas and running the front of the house, while Colosi and his staff of three work their magic in full view of the front door.
Colosi, who grew up to a life of cooking with his Italian family, has created a host of dishes that make the palate sit up and take notice. His liberal use of chilies doesn’t overpower entrees or leave diners gasping for water, but rather blends into the dish in a pleasing “ooh, what is that?” kind of way.
“I did a lot of experimenting down in Australia,” he said. “I learned from the chef and owner of that restaurant, and it just kind of came – mixing the chilies with the fruits and not overpowering the main part of the dish. All of my dishes have so many intricate ingredients in them.”
The ahi tuna, for example, is seared with three kinds of peppers and served with a coconut saffron vinaigrette. It comes with tortilla slaw – a crunchy twist on coleslaw made with julienned tortillas that are fried and mixed with an orange/cranberry/garlic vinaigrette.
The complexity of the dishes means a lot of preparation time, Colosi concedes. Chelec can attest to that. Pressed to help out in the kitchen once, he was assigned to make Blue Maize’s fire-roasted tomato salsa, roasting each tomato over an open flame by hand.
“It’s very labor-intensive,” Chelec confirmed. It’s also great salsa.
The duo has struggled to keep the restaurant affordable for locals despite the challenges of ever-increasing rents, but for some Aspenites, off-season is prime time for dinner at Blue Maize. That’s when the fajitas are half-price.
Chicken, steak, shrimp or various combo options marinated in fresh lime juice and cilantro and served with sauteed peppers and onions and other fixings are a big seller when some restaurants shut their doors during the spring and fall lulls.
The deal began as an off-season enticement; now, it’s a tradition Blue Maize doesn’t dare do away with.
“People call us in July to ask if the fajitas are half-price yet,” Chelec said.
“They are people who won’t come in until off-season. They wait,” Colosi added.
It’s worth it.