Food Matters: Out of Aspen
IF YOU GO ...
Free Range Kitchen & Wine Bar
305 Gold Rivers Court, Basalt
SHORTLY AFTER Free Range Kitchen & Wine Bar opened in Basalt this past winter, a visitor stopped in with a hankering for a burger. But, as co-owner Steve Humble tells it, executive chef Flip Wise’s signature Range Burger — smothered in drunken, fire-charred onions, poblano peppers, and queso fresco — sounded a bit too “out there,” according to this patron. He asked if the kitchen might swap plain ol‘ lettuce, tomato, and onion for the heady Mexican toppings. Humble obliged on two of three; tomatoes were a no-go, though. They didn’t have any in stock.
“He looked at me like I had two heads,” Humble says, with a laugh. “‘What restaurant doesn’t have tomatoes?’” the guy asked. Humble explained that Free Range didn’t have any because tomatoes weren’t in season.
Another strange look prompted further elaboration: “Well, we can get tomatoes right now, but they’re typically from Mexico, they have no sugar content, no flavor, they’re hard as a rock, they’re just not that good,” Humble said. “If we can’t do it right, we’re not gonna do it.”
Trepidation toward Free Range’s ever-evolving, hyper-seasonal menu is not atypical. Humble shares a story of a recent group of longtime friends and members of the Roaring Fork Club, where Humble built an award-winning wine program over a sweet sixteen years. (His wife and Free Range co-owner, Robin, ran the private venue’s catering department for a decade.) The self-proclaimed traditionalists admitted that the menu skewed overly adventurous for their tastes. A few bites, however, changed their minds fast.
“We’ve not played it safe,” Humble says. “And Flip continually surprises me.”
Take the chef’s eggs Benedict lunch plate: Two poached local farm eggs jiggle atop ham and sautéed hardy greens on a fat slice of house-made caraway-raisin soda bread. The stack is drenched generously yet purposefully with burnt-orange Hollandaise, then showered with tiny pink edible flowers and lavender crystals of beet juice-infused, smoked Maldon sea salt.
“It’s not a cool gimmick,” Wise promises of the seasoning. “You get that sweet, rooty, minerally flavor of the smoke in the salt. It’s so good.”
The base ingredients, meanwhile, speak for themselves. The protein hails from animals that roam free on a rotational grazing schedule at Rock Bottom Ranch just a few miles away. As does the pork in the potstickers, served with burnt-garlic ponzu, as well as the seasonal vegetables that compose succotash beneath Free Range’s daily pork entrée with slow-simmered mole. The Range Burger is made with beef from Mountain Primal Meat Co. in Carbondale.
Wise’s nightly curry special soon will toggle between lamb shoulder from Aspen Cattle Company and diver scallops via “Kaleb, my fish guy from up in Alaska,” he says. Wise and sous chef Patrick Kennedy made kimchi from 60 pounds of radish tops from Erin’s Acres. Focaccia, fresh pasta, sauces, soups — all of it is from scratch, natch.
The kitchen’s latest score: Podded snap peas from Wild Mountain Seeds in Carbondale. “They’re marbled purple and green — gorgeous,” Wise enthuses. “I think, I’m gonna do a special tonight: Tagliatelle with togarashi, basil, Parmesan rind stock, and the podded snap peas. Umami from the togarashi, herby brightness from the basil, an incredible multitude of flavors from the Parmesan, and that sweet crunch from the snap peas.”
Summer harvest season is just warming up in our high-altitude valley, yet Free Range has already flipped the script on what it means to eat local food. Situated in Basalt, at least 20 miles closer to the region’s fertile farmland than Aspen, Wise and Kennedy have been able to build personal relationships with farmers and ranchers. (“Courting” purveyors, Wise quips.) They visit gardens and pastures and review planting schedules in advance, which inform future menus.
All of this may require extra time and effort in between lunch and dinner service, but these steps are non-negotiable; an estimated 90 percent of Free Range ingredients are bred in Paonia, Hotchkiss, Montrose, and the Roaring Fork Valley. (The two-year-old Farm Runners delivery service will prove invaluable when tourism is in full swing.) One might call the Free Range philosophy, Community Supported Food.
“If you’re gonna represent the community, you also have to cook with the season,” Wise says. “This whole farm-to-table thing has gotten out of context; it’s an abused term. You either go all the way or you don’t.”
Wise understands the challenges — and rewards — well. Formerly the opening sous chef of Oak in Boulder (and a veteran of The Little Nell before that), Wise quit his post as butcher at Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop in Aspen last summer to ramp up production of Open Fire Catering with his wife, Erin. They outfitted a 20-foot trailer with a massive smoker and wood-burning grill. Their MO: Source all food from local producers and cook exclusively over live fire. They catered about a dozen events at Roaring Fork Beer Company in Carbondale and more elsewhere. When they showed up to the farmers’ markets every Wednesday and Sunday, they had no menu planned.
“I just [asked]: What do you have?” Wise says. “That translated easily when I got called up by Robin and Steve.”
Boasting a combined 50 years in the hospitality industry, including a seven-year stint managing chef Charles Dale’s famed Renaissance in Aspen in the 1990s, the first-time restaurateurs found Wise fairly easily.
“We’ve worked with James Beard award-winning chefs, Food & Wine Best New Chefs,” Steve Humble says. “Two of the five guys we talked to — one of them in the valley and the other in New York — said, ‘You should talk to [Wise].’ We saw eye to eye immediately.”
A full build-out on Two Rivers Road (formerly Cuvée World Bistro) just a stone’s throw from Midland Avenue was complete in less than two months, thanks to “solid guidance” by interior-designer friend Michelle Lowe. Awash in Colorado beetle-kill wood, old Chicago-style brick, sleek gray tones, and with dozens of industrial light-bulb fixtures dangling haphazardly throughout, the dining room and bar together seat 80 — spaciously. Another 50 seats are on the patio outside.
“Robin hung each one of these lights herself,” Humble says, “on exposed wooden beams from a ranch in Silt. We wanted to be responsible with the environment and sustainably modeled — [not] too fancy or high-end.”
Similarly, the menu is priced “deliberately.” Aspenites will find solace in appetizers at a modest $7 to $15 dollar; entrees, $16 to mid-$20s; choice steaks above that. And the wine! By the glass pours begin at $7 and many are $12-14; bottles begin at $25 — and it ain’t swill. Humble is proud of his reserve list, for which he convinced industry friends to part with rarities and older vintages or “library releases” without markup.
Wise and Humble agree that their concept in Aspen would be unsustainable, thanks to harsh seasonality, in-the-box expectations, and sky-high rents — never mind that open-fire cooking is prohibited by the city.
“It’s been fun,” Wise says, when I call for an update. “When you keep it loose and open, you can just riff.”
In fact, Wise tells me, Kennedy is by his side, making a batch of house vinegar using old bottles of Chardonnay.
“He took a piece of coal from the grill and put it in there so it’ll be char-donnay vinegar,” he exclaims. “Cool!”
Tomato-lovers, meanwhile, buckle up. The crimson fruits will be in high supply — along with Colorado sweet corn — come July.
Amanda Rae toasts to Free Range with Roaring Fork Beer Company’s sessionable Flip IPA—a new flagship brew released in February. “Kind of like the man himself: approachable yet complex,” says marketing director Aly Sanguily.
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