The Art of Lunch: Chef David Wang nourishes creativity by leading the Anderson Ranch Café into uncharted territory
IF YOU GO…
Anderson Ranch Arts Center Café
Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Through Sept. 25
Grab-and-go Japanese konbini:
Starting Sept. 28
Full coffee bar and sweets:
Mon-Fri 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
5263 Owl Creek Rd.
When chef David Wang presented a pop-up dinner of East Asian comfort food at Anderson Ranch Arts Center last March, he relished the freedom to cook without boundaries. After all, the founding tenets of the 54-year-old cultural center and arts residency program are “to encourage unbridled creativity” and foster “art making as a way of life and a professional path.”
As it turned out, the event set the table for Wang to become the Ranch Café’s inaugural director of culinary arts and operations in June. With the gig came one nonnegotiable parameter, though: He had to offer a cookie at lunch.
“The Ranch has long been known for cookies. Typically—no, not typically, always our lunch dessert is a cookie,” explains vice president of operations and business units Ashley Todey. “David said he wanted his own signature cookie. He was describing all of these senses. I was like, ‘OK, whatever, just give me a cookie. I’m sure it will be good.’”
Wang’s palm-sized chocolate chip cookie was the color of brown sugar, thick and soft in the middle with toothsome edges and a faint dusting of salt. Taking a bite, Todey understood immediately how Taiwanese oolong tea infused in the batter of the sweet treat could spur a whole new sensory adventure.
“He described it exactly how I experienced it,” Todey marvels. “I was so impressed with his ability to take something really sophisticated—he talked about it like a fine wine—and bring it down to a cookie.”
Wang’s unique style of combining global flavors using local ingredients informs the reimagined Ranch Café, served in an approachable (and socially distanced) format. This week closes out regular lunch service for the season, but “Café Konbini” offers grab-and-go Japanese snacks beginning Sept. 28. The coffee bar will remain open.
All summer, Wang’s menu of about seven items (plus mochi ice cream, a special dessert, and those tea-infused cookies) changed weekly based on seasonal produce at farmers’ markets and via Farm Runners, which sources and delivers just-picked bounty from more than 50 farmers and independent producers across Colorado’s Western Slope.
Mainstays include a Vietnamese rice-noodle salad and yakisoba stir-fried noodles—familiar throwbacks to Wang’s work as executive chef of Meat & Cheese Restaurant in Aspen from 2014 to 2017 and his Hao House pop-up at Jimmy’s Bodega in winter 2018-19, respectively. This finale week (ending Sept. 25) also features a meatball sandwich, zuppa Toscana, and Okinawan Taco Rice, historically “created for American GI’s who missed the flavors of home: Tex-Mex tacos on Japanese rice.”
Wang’s beloved Farmhouse Salad this week combines roasted chioggia beets, herbed chèvre, black rice, toasted cashews and sesame balsamic soy vinaigrette. There’s always a twist. I was standing in line at the café a few weeks ago when a visitor wondered aloud why the kale salad’s memorable green goddess dressing disappeared from the menu, and what exactly is sudachi vinaigrette?
“Sudachi is another type of Japanese citrus,” Wang shares. “Not as limey as yuzu, it’s more on the orangey, rounder note. Not as big of a punch, but a nice, mellow flavor.”
Education is baked into the Anderson Ranch mission, making Wang a natural fit to lead kitchen operations at the café (formally named the Kent Campus Center). Guests at his word-of-mouth Umami Underground/Ramen Monster pop-up dinners (where Wang served bowls of noodles along with instructions detailing the respectable way to eat them) might be thrilled to learn that Ramen Night at Anderson Ranch launches in October. Private catering, too.
Born in Taiwan, the head-of-class graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and lifetime scholar enjoys combining diverse cultural influences into dishes.
“We cook what we want, based on what we’re inspired by regionally, globally. It could be regional Americana—that’s the barbecue,” Wang says, referencing a past favorite, 12-hour, maple-wood-smoked pork belly with plum barbecue sauce on fluffy bao buns. “At the same time, serving it in bao buns, gua bao, is very Taiwan.”
Growing restless with the oolong chocolate chip cookies, the chef has explored other tea-infused combinations with much success. Right now: crispy-chewy Sweet Corn Chamomile, using the last of the Colorado harvest.
“Something weird,” Wang muses. “It goes back to (Modernist Cuisine founder and author) Nathan Myhrvold: ‘Is food art?’ and if it is art, ‘why must it be constrained by rules?’”
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