Food Matters: A Rustique Bistro resurrection at Anderson Ranch
If food is art — if eating an exquisite meal is on par with attending a spirited concert or viewing an esteemed painting — then Rob Ittner is leading a one-man traveling exhibition.
On Dec. 17, the chef-entrepreneur revives Rustique Bistro — which he operated for nearly 20 years on Hopkins Avenue in Aspen and closed this past April — during a special pop-up dinner at Anderson Ranch to conclude the art mecca’s annual Holiday Open House. “Rustique at the Ranch” will showcase a multicourse, family-style supper of classic dishes from the beloved restaurant, served in the Snowmass Village property’s Schermer Meeting Hall beginning promptly at 7 p.m.
“We want to make it more elegant,” says Anderson Ranch marketing director Katherine Roberts. “Not to take away from the homespun fun of the event, but something new and dynamic.”
A Rustique Bistro resurrection fits naturally at Anderson Ranch, home to more than two dozen resident artists who invite the public into their creative workspaces and offer studio tours and talks during the free Holiday Open House. Ittner believes that this culinary enhancement to the 25-year-plus tradition will bring newcomers to the Ranch, “an international art treasure.”
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Beginning in 2013, Ittner ran the subterranean Cooking School of Aspen — a 2.0 revival from an earlier iteration that launched in the 1990s, then closed around 2007 — guided by an artful philosophy.
“My whole mission with the Cooking School and Rustique: food is art,” Ittner says. “I think it quite often gets ignored as an art form. Just like listening to something at the Music Tent or going into an art gallery, experiencing a meal is a form of art. It’s something you’re going to remember for a long time.”
Rustique at the Ranch — priced at $50 per person and featuring linens and servers — reprises iconic dishes that persevered for almost two decades. To start: Rustique’s spinach salad with bacon lardons, goat cheese crostini, and shallot vinaigrette, alongside shared appetizers including the restaurant’s famed roasted mushroom-truffle mac and cheese. Three-time winner of the bygone Aspen Mac and Cheese Festival, the dish of creamy, savory gemelli pasta is likely one of the first that resurfaces when folks reminisce about Rustique.
Next up, a family-style main course of former bestsellers: braised short ribs over polenta with root vegetables and slow-baked salmon topped with balsamic-tomato jam, alongside country ratatouille, mushroom risotto and caramelized Brussels sprouts with bacon-orange gastrique. The feast finishes with apple tart tatin and a selection of French cheeses.
In featuring such classics, the Rustique redo might be compared to revisiting favorite European master works. “I don’t say, ‘Oh, I’ve (already) been to the Musée d’Orsay,’” Ittner explains. “I say, ‘I want to go back and experience “Starry Night” again.’ I define art very specifically in my cooking classes: experience through our senses that inspires emotion. It’s not (always) something you listen to or see, but it can be something we smell, taste or touch.”
Ittner shares a story of visiting the Louvre in Paris and observing a group of blind students led through a Degas exhibit. “They all had white gloves and were allowed to touch the sculptures,” Ittner marvels. “It was amazing — a direct reflection that all (senses) experience art. My expression has been smell and taste.”
Nostalgia, then, is the ability to experience emotion over and over.
“The memory of Rustique in my mind has to do with refined flavors in a rustic manner,” Ittner says. “And comfort. The mass following of Rustique had to do with feeling comfortable (there), comfort food. That’s the emotion. Food as art.”
Passionate about recreating a certain coziness through hospitality, Ittner is calling upon former Rustique sous chef Neal Stiles and select waitstaff to bring Rustique back to life for the night. Anderson Ranch chef Greg Basiliere will assist Ittner, who serves as executive chef for the event.
“Any meal you have is an art form — even making an omelet in the morning,” Ittner says. “Doing things with purpose. When you add salt, pepper and flavors to an omelet, you’re expressing yourself in a particular way.”
Though Rustique at the Ranch was announced a couple of weeks ago and has since reached capacity of more than 100 seats, those hoping to get on the waitlist should contact Molly O’Leary at 970-924-5056. Wine is included in the ticket price.
“We often think of art as extracurricular activity, as a pleasure of life,” says Ittner, who is consulting on a possible guest chef series at Anderson Ranch this winter. “I think experiencing food as art is a necessity.”
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