Aspen Times Weekly: Tiny Wonders
IF YOU GO ..
Crêperie Du Village
400 E. Hopkins Ave.
Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro
355 S. Monarch St.
Bison Bar at Hyatt Grand Aspen
415 E. Dean St.
335 Main St., Carbondale
AT CRÊPERIE DU VILLAGE on recent Friday night, chef Andreas Neufeld is closing in on 300 covers during a 12-hour nonstop service. I’ve snagged one of seven coveted stools at the bar, where I notice that nearly all of the other 45 seats in this subterranean spot are occupied with patrons sipping wine, dipping crusty bread into fondue, and canoodling over candlelight. The air is thick with the unmistakable aromas of alpine bistro fare — bubbling cheese, braised meats, garlicky escargots — and it’s so toasty that my face flushes as if I’ve been on a kirsch binge since après-ski.
Just beyond my silverware, Neufeld takes a rare pause to survey the cozy, crowded dining room. Here, in the space one might assume is a barkeep’s domain, the lanky, 6-foot-4 Austrian will remain for the rest of the evening. As most fans of the Crêperie realize, Neufeld’s entire kitchen fills this scant 100 square feet. The “line,” which he shares with two other cooks, comprises four crêpe makers, three induction burners, a pair of compact convection ovens, and, from what I can tell, a prep counter fit for a studio apartment. In the corner, a lone dishwasher tackles a Sisyphean tower of platters in a sink so teensy it’s comical. Stovetops, flames, and fryers are noticeably absent. There’s simply no room.
“We’re very limited on equipment,” explains Neufeld, adding that customers are consistently shocked to learn there’s no secret kitchen. He does cook proteins in a sous-vide immersion circulator and warms soups on a small steam table, both hidden from view beneath the bar. In fact, his walk-in cooler sits outside in the back alley above; fetching ingredients requires a stroll through the dining room, out the front door, upstairs, and around the sidewalk. “You wanna be smart about going out,” he quips, “so you don’t run back and forth.”
Despite these limitations, the Crêperie’s menu of non-namesake items has expanded; Neufeld added a handful of hot entrées — sea scallops with pea purée and Romesco at dinner; Croque Madame at lunch — when he arrived following Ute City’s closure last year.
“It’s being smart about how I write the menu,” he says of the intense planning required. “For one dish, I cannot get three sauté pans going. It needs to be simple.”
Heavy morning prep typically employs a large farmhouse table in the center of the dining room before lunch guests roll in. Without it, he wouldn’t have space to form foie gras torchon or hand-roll ravioli. “I don’t have the capacity to sear foie gras,” Neufeld admits, though it hardly matters because his final presentation is über-silky, served with cherry-shallot compote. “Bigger items, like braising veal cheeks, I can only do one thing a day.” Crêpe griddles will warm desserts, but they aren’t powerful enough to boil water.
Yet Neufeld’s cleverest trick isn’t hiding the spice rack in the ceiling or storing dry goods down below. “If I had a menu without fondue in this kitchen, it would not work,” Neufeld says. “It’s one-pot, we serve it in the dish. When we do 300 covers a day, raclette and fondue take the pressure off the kitchen. But there’s no guarantee. It’s a juggle.”
No doubt, when Raphael Derly and Karin Schwendtner opened Crêperie du Village in late-2011 they took a cue from cultishly popular Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro, which slings fondue, raclette, and Champagne-soaked revelry at 10,900 feet on Aspen Highlands. When I ask Cloud Nine executive chef Michael Johnston about spending three seasons in a notoriously tiny kitchen, he snickers.
“We have a small kitchen,” he confirms, “but then we have servers and customers walking straight through it, all day long.” Alas, when the warming hut was transformed to a restaurant in 1999, the only place to put five diminutive cooking areas was smack between two larger dining rooms. “Finding space to prep when I have 10 guys and four counter spaces, it’s tricky,” adds Johnston. He estimates that the space clocks 480 square feet, which may be generous. “But it seems a lot smaller; my dishwashing station is in the sauté room. In 150 square feet: one guy washing dishes, another cooking for 250 people.”
Johnston credits his success to careful organization, as well as the rare ability to clean house daily. “We never have an abundance of food; we (bring up) enough for service and then its gone,” he says. It’s a blessing and a curse. “Most restaurants will prep for three or four days at once; we have to come in the morning and prep everything in two or three hours. It is a really hard job, but I have some really good chefs. It’s hard when you’re standing on top of someone else, tired and cranky. You become friends real quick.”
Like Neufeuld at Crêperie did later, Cloud Nine’s founding executive chef Andreas Fischbacher (through 2012) engineered his menu to serve the space: fondue, raclette, soups, cold plates.
“That was a beautiful thing — to have all those sauté pans out of the kitchen,” says Fischbacher, who learned the art of minimalism while cooking around the world on low-ceilinged cruise ships in the mid-1980s. By the same turn, Crêperie, he says, is “one of the last shoestring restaurants. The mood inside…Raphael did a great job.”
Still, “Small is relative,” says Henning Rahm, director of food and beverage at the Limelight Hotel, which sleeps 300. The 295-square-foot kitchen and wet bar, including a twin-size prep and dishwashing room behind it, was built when the Aspen Skiing Co. bought the lodge in 2010: a pizza oven, six-burner convection oven, and several cold stations to serve Mediterranean cuisine. “The pizza guys don’t even have to move,” Rahm explains, “but (chef Jeff Gundy) also makes his own pasta.”
Every inch of space is crucial: petite refrigerators double as prep tables; wooden bins hide ice troughs; pans hang from holes custom-drilled into the oven hood. In three years, Rahm has purchased several refrigerator units, portable ovens, a slow cooker, and hot boxes to keep up with the lounge’s overwhelming demand. Takeout boxes, dry goods, extra ovens, and special event equipment are stored in a separate location. “You have more space,” he cautions, “stuff piles up, you get mess.”
As cost-per-square-footage continues to climb in Aspen, the need for creative efficiency in restaurants is more valuable than ever.
“New York is the capital of making that happen, and Aspen is getting close with the changes in real estate,” notes Caribou Club executive chef Miles Angelo. This season, Angelo is producing food for events at the Hyatt Grand Aspen’s Bison Bar — a five-course media tasting; the recent Oscars soirée — with little more than a microwave and Panini press. As it turns out, that’s cake for Angelo; the seasoned caterer recalls working atop a pair of six-foot-long tables in a back room of Aspen’s Prada boutique to crank out 1,200 to 1,600 hors d’oeuvres in two hours. “You can set it up in a dark closet if you need to,” he says. “Dinners out of hallways — that’s what catering is all about.”
Then there’s the Chinese jigsaw that is the 55-square-foot Popcorn Wagon, resurrected by Ajax Donuts owners Brad and Jacqueline Matthews this fall.
“It’s a one-man show,” Brad says. “I’ve got hooks on the ceiling, built-in shelves. If you move (something), it has to go back to its spot immediately or the place looks cluttered. I bought a locker to hang our coats (outside).”
But bigger is not always, as they say, better. When Fischbacher built his worksphop at Allegria Restaurant in Carbondale, he was conscious to conserve space.
“The kitchen is pretty much the same footprint as Cloud Nine; it’s a little bit more mechanical, and there’s more storage,” he says. That he prefers a smaller kitchen boils down to something all chefs deal with, whether they realize it or not: mileage. Currently, Fischbacher clocks about eight miles during an eight-hour shift. “A large kitchen is spread out,” he explains. “All the sudden you’re running 16 miles a day!”
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Many locations on Basalt Mountain were barren as recently as two months ago. However, nutrients unlocked during the Lake Christine Fire and a wet winter have sparked a remarkable recovery. Aspen Center for Environmental Studies is leading fire ecology tours to discuss the changes.