Foodstuff: One local’s homecoming to the restaurant service life
I started my first restaurant job at age 17, in a fine dining eatery at the base of Beaver Creek Resort. I was a back server (you know, the one who fills your water, gets you bread, and tells you your server will be right with you?). For four years through college, I worked during school breaks and summer vacations, living at home, stashing my tips, paying off my student loans, and getting a very skewed idea of what “the real world” looked like as my first marketing job paid only $8 per hour — a far cry from the $200 I’d take home in tips every night.
I went into the restaurant at 4 p.m. and left at 11:30 p.m., leaving “work” behind every night. I met the actor Don Cheadle, worked countless wedding receptions, and saw my fair share of debauchery at the bar. I tried my first olive martini (spit out on the carpet) and sip of $2,000 wine (I thought it tasted like dirt). I found coworkers who became family and made friendships that lasted far beyond my tenure.
It was the best job I ever had.
Fourteen years later, I live in Aspen with have a traditional 9-to-5 career, a loving husband, and — like every other good millennial — anxiety. Call it nostalgia, a desire for simpler times, or a way to manage my mental health, but I wanted to return to the restaurant industry. So, I spent the winter 2021-22 season working part time at Ellina on the Hyman Avenue pedestrian mall.
I loved every minute of it.
Returning to an industry that was so formative in shaping me as a person felt like coming home. Aspen is certainly different than Beaver Creek. Being 17 is way easier than being 31 (my whole body hurts these days). And the times have totally changed. Aspen is seeing an unprecedented transformation in the restaurant industry, and the longtime local haunts are disappearing faster than our regional water shed. Yet the resiliency and commitment of those local restauranters still left — like Ellina — is to be commended and revered.
In a season full of staff shortages and supply chain issues, there were nights when the front of house was at half-staffed, making it through the holidays with only two or three servers on each night. There was a week when Jill Carnevale, the owner, needed to work on the line, side by side with her kitchen crew because someone was out sick.
“Whatever it takes” was the attitude. And whatever it took, it got us through the season.
Did it help me, my anxiety, my mental health, to work at Ellina? Yes.
It let me stop dwelling on my day job and forced me to only focus on the task at hand. Were there times when the anxiety-inducing panic of dropping food at the wrong table was crippling? Yes. But the restaurant is constant. The job itself doesn’t really change, but the laughs, the people, the vibe make the place. Drinks flow freely, as does friendship and advice.
Of course, Aspen is still Aspen, and it will always have its quirks. While some guests can certainly be “high maintenance” (highlights include a Doberman “service dog” who barked all through dinner, and the constant gaggles of girls wearing Kemo Sabe hats so large it was impossible to reach over their heads and pour water), generally what people are looking for is a nice dinner with good service. And I was happy to provide that, to the best of my ability.
The local restaurant scene is certainly changing, but the people who work in it nightly are still the same. Will I go back? Next season or next year? I want to say that I will. As long as life doesn’t get in the way. The people who run and work in restaurants here are a special kind of soul: dedicated, meticulous, and passionate.
For this season at least, I am proud to count myself among them.
Sara Stookey Sanchez was born in Vail, works in Snowmass, and lives in Aspen. She loves food and wine and has eaten at almost every restaurant in the Roaring Fork Valley, although she has only worked at one so far. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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