Aspen Times Weekly: Cheap Trick
WHEN RONALD McDONALD skipped town two weeks ago, mourning was brief — but it happened. The abrupt dismantling of Aspen’s Golden Arches on January 15 struck a cord with some locals, and not just RFTA drivers or folks transplanted for the workday and in search of cheap lunch. In bite-size quips, our mayor, sheriff, and other key figures summed it up: We have reached the end of an era.
The Aspen Times columnist Meredith Carroll explained the symbolism recently: “A McDonald’s in the downtown core neatly summed up Aspen’s Madonna-whore complex: As much as locals love a business committed to a long-term presence, if it doesn’t feed our righteous demands for everything provincial, organic, grass-fed, free-range, gluten-free, fair-trade and sustainable, we have a hard time getting aroused by it.”
Small-town or worldwide, businesses in it for the long haul share an unsexy though crucial trait: consistency. For better or worse, McDonald’s survived 31 years in our anti-chain town because customers knew what to expect when they walked through the door, both in price and product. That a traveler can visit a McDonald’s anywhere in the world, order a Big Mac, and receive the same sandwich is no small feat. Mom-and-pop venues may have a tougher time executing this concept, especially when managing a largely seasonal workforce, but truly: consistency is the price of admission when it comes to reputation.
I experienced a prime example of this a couple of weeks ago. So dream-worthy was a certain noodle bowl that I returned to the restaurant a few days later with a nagging craving for an encore. I had high hopes—and why not? The memory of that first slurp was burned into my brain. This time, though, my heart sank as soon as the server deposited the dish. These noodles were unrecognizable, an obvious and poor substitute for the original version. I left the table unsatisfied and annoyed. As a food fanatic obsessed easily with specific tastes, it’s grossly disappointing to order one thing and receive something else entirely.
The noodle snafu is fresh in my mind when I meet legendary Australian chef Neil Perry recently. So I ask him: How important has consistency been in your career?
“Oh, it’s absolutely everything,” Perry replies. “It’s customer expectation: once they try something in a restaurant, they should come back and find it. We work really hard on doing the best we can today and trying harder tomorrow. Complacency is left at the door.”
Interestingly enough, Perry’s latest endeavor, Burger Project, is a high-concept chain with two locations in Australia currently and another seven slated to open this year.
“We were inspired by the fact that Americans were willing to pay more at Shake Shack or Smashburger rather than McDonald’s,” Perry explains. “Australians as well. We’ve created a burger that all about the beef: 36 month, grass-fed, whole brisket, whole chuck, hand-cut, ground in each shop. It’s been going gangbusters.”
When he asks me to name a standout burger in Aspen, I suggest an instant classic: the cheeseburger at the White House Tavern. This is when Perry gets excited.
“Great!” he says. “The White House has a beautiful patty, always cooked medium every time. But you know what? They’ve just changed it — while I was here! I had it the first week. I went back the second week, ordered the cheeseburger, and was like, Why did you change it? That was one of my favorite burgers and now there’s white cheese and this mayonnaise coleslaw on it.” He sighs.
Neil, I feel you. Indeed, the original cheeseburger at the White House Tavern — a bastion of consistency — has left the building indefinitely.
In the case of the New Year noodle flop, however, my dining companion, a veteran of the restaurant industry, knew what happened. The kitchen ran out of the correct ingredient; a line cook subbed in a mediocre replacement. Good chefs, though, will scrap the item altogether rather than serve an inferior version.
When I visited Justice Snow’s a few months ago after catching wind that a dish of chicken and waffles was new to the brunch menu, I was bummed to learn that chef Jonathan Leichliter would not serve it that morning. When I learned more, I understood why: Unhappy with the quality of bird delivered, Leichliter proactively 86ed the plate. Better to scrap it altogether than to serve a lame bird — his reputation would thank him.
“The only thing that matters in this town is consistency,” chef Matt O’Neill told me back in August 2013 while still at the helm of Ajax Tavern. He was opining the necessity of keeping certain items on the menu — a universal truth for most Aspen chefs. “The menus at successful restaurants never change,” he said. “If we change this dish, those people aren’t going to come back.”
When detailing the painstaking process of charcuterie, noted salumiere Elias Cairo of Olympic Provisions in Portland, Oregon, also tells me that turning out a steady product is paramount.
“It takes so much precision to be consistent,” says Cairo, who worked in the Alps for a stint before opening his shop in the Pacific Northwest in 2009. “I’d see cheesemakers do the exact same thing for five years. You have to create a true feeling to master what you’re doing. It’s very rewarding.”
Cravings being the powerful forces they are, I returned to the scene of the noodle flop last week. Knowing that the meal could go either way may have lightened expectations. To our delight, the original noodles returned to the table. The dish is back on track. Not the end of an era here — yet.
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