Food Matters: A Danish chef-in-residence introduces Nordic cuisine to Hotel Jerome
Chef Mads Refslund Pop-Up ResidencyProspect at Hotel Jerome Wed-Sun, through March 31 6-course tasting menus, $175; wine $85, 8-course Alchemist menu, $295; wine $110 À la carte items in The Living Room 330 E. Main St. 970-429-7610 aubergeresorts.com/hoteljerome/dine
Our dining adventure begins in the weeds: Propped on a nest of hay is a jumbo baked potato, crowned with a fistful of parsley that resembles a curly green coiffure. Just as I’m wondering how to approach this whimsical handiwork, our server jumps in with instruction: Find the bamboo straw hidden among parsley, inhale the aroma of toasted grass and verdant herbs, and sip. Creamy potato soup, it turns out, stays warm within a cavity carved inside the whole potato.
Showstoppers like this keep coming. A whole acorn squash arrives to the table, sliced in half horizontally and sandwiching a full circle of sunflower petals fanned atop the bottom lip. An embedded wire handle helps to lift the top half of squash to reveal tender sea urchin with chestnuts.
A tiny burlap sack of fried sunchokes is paired with a ramekin of house-made crème fraîche topped with a fat dollop of caviar, both vessels nestled on rosemary fronds and among pinecones. A glass lid is lifted to release a gray cloud, unveiling scorched bone marrow for scooping onto charred flatbreads. We unfurl folded blankets of grilled kelp seaweed to expose king crab claws within, steeped in brown butter, tarragon, brine and smoke. A pine twig, whittled on one end into a handy seafood pick, helps to extract every morsel of knuckle meat. The entire masterpiece is presented a bed of overturned clamshells.
“I’m trying to paint a picture of where things live,” says Danish chef Mads Refslund, in residence at Hotel Jerome through March. “Instead of serving on a white plate, I try to use things from nature. It makes sense if you think about where things are coming from or what they eat, and serve (them together).”
Refslund, a co-founder along with René Redzepi and Claus Meyer of the 2-Michelin-starred Noma restaurant in Copenhagen — four times ranked Best Restaurant in the World by Restaurant Magazine and currently No. 2 on the list — is ensconced here for two months alongside executive chef Rob Zack as part of a yearlong tour through Auberge Resorts. This fall, he’ll open his first New York City restaurant based on the “fire and ice” concept that informs his decidedly wild menus in Aspen.
“That’s the way I like to cook, and the way I like to eat: a combination of sushi and grilled things,” Refslund quips. So, his progressive tasting experience at Prospect showcases “raw things, served on ice, and (dishes cooked using) the big grill we have in the kitchen.”
Two six-course tasting menus are available: one “herbivorous, based on the plant kingdom”; another “carnivorous, based on protein,” as well as a third “Alchemist” menu, showcasing eight courses of the chef’s greatest hits, in a longer format. (Our Alchemist meal, with libation pairings curated by wine director Christel Stiver, stretched three-and-a-half hours; Refslund notes that the team, ever more efficient, is edging in on two hours for six courses.)
Each menu features starter snacks, on ice — “ingredients that have not been touched by heat, leaving them to show the purity and beauty that Mother Nature has provided” — and those cooked over live fire. All dishes are evolving. When I mention the standout sourdough waffle topped with crispy chicken skin and an eye-boggling amount of trout roe, friends who attended a preview event back in early February have no idea what I’m talking about. Ditto for the dry-aged Colorado lamb chops served with lamb sweetbreads, black garlic and shaved Piedmont winter truffle on a warm stone surrounded by a rambling bush of juniper, spruce and pine branches. Meanwhile, I don’t sample the tofu made from pine nuts, a “beet rose,” nor whole baked apples in rye with truffle and pickled spruce, all listed later on the herbivorous menu.
Offered separately are three “curated creations for the table,” such as those addictive crispy sunchokes with caviar and the smoked bone marrow. Soon a few of these sharable items will be offered à la carte in The Living Room so that guests may try chef Refslund’s cuisine without committing to the full tasting. Stiver’s wine pairings will be available alongside, as well.
At the Hotel Jerome, Refslund is beginning an immersive tour of six properties in the Auberge Resorts Collection that segues to foraging excursions, classes and one-off tasting dinners in Los Cabos, Mexico; Napa Valley; Kennebunkport, Maine; and Connecticut. It aims to share Nordic cuisine, which is largely plant-based though featuring indigenous seafood and wild game, with a broader audience.
“It’s incredibly simple food … with a lot of technique and creativity on the presentation. So much of what you do is umami-based — it starts with dashi and kombu and those flavors,” Zack explains, sitting alongside Refslund in the Living Room one afternoon. “I think the outdoor focus is what I love (most). It’s almost like camping, with the simplicity of it and the grill: the potato baked in hay ….”
Refslund brought along three of his own chefs to join the hotel kitchen’s brigade of young cooks and apprentices — necessary to tackle the extensive prep work involved.
“The techniques he’s doing are beyond anything these kids have seen,” Zack marvels. “It’s a learning curve — another reason we wanted to bring Mads here for two months. We’re starting to hit our stride; that frees him up to be more creative.”
Thinking back on the parade of wow moments, though, I wonder: What happens with that giant potato concealing but a few sips of soup or the acorn squash as showpiece treasure chest?
“We’re trying to reuse everything,” says Refslund, a champion of sustainable, zero-waste cooking and author of “Scraps, Wilt & Weeds: Turning Wasted Food into Plenty” (Grand Central Life & Style, 2017). “We take the squash, wash it out, burn the shit out of it, make it into dashi. You get the smokiness and sweetness of squash with seaweed, bonito flakes and vegetable stock.”
Those potatoes are pureed into soup; parsley fronds are steeped into a vibrant green oil for drizzling over raw shellfish.
“For me, going out to eat is all about being happy and having a good time together,” shares Refslund, who requests a reggae soundtrack. “New tastes and new ways of seeing food.”
Local audiences are easing into it. Originally the chef served venison heart and liver, “but some people freaked out so we changed it to quail and lamb.”
Even the quail, a delicate, fist-sized bird with legs tucked and cavity stuffed like a miniscule Thanksgiving centerpiece, can stretch comfort levels.
“I don’t think people know what they’re going into,” Zack admits. “When people see the quail, 95 percent go bonkers (in a good way). Five percent who are like, Whoa, I wasn’t ready for that.”
Since foraging wild foods and pickling the bounty is an important part of Refslund’s repertoire — and of Nordic cuisine in general — it is bittersweet that his Hotel Jerome visit lasts during the coldest, barren months in the Roaring Fork Valley. As Zack describes summer in Aspen, musing about a possible “over-the-top” foraged dinner in August, Refslund lights up. Perhaps he shall return.
“Ooh, mushrooms!” Refslund exclaims, as Zack describes the burn morels and wild porcini that flourished last summer in the wake of the 2018 Lake Christine Fire. To this Danish chef, making a meal is elemental. “You have to plan ahead if you’re foraging,” he says. “But it doesn’t mean that you set your menu in stones. It’s alphabet. It’s just alphabet.”
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