A winning recipe: Solorzano-Smith rises through Aspen’s hospitality ranks to become face of downtown restaurants

Carlos Solorzano-Smith came to Aspen 12 years ago having never enjoyed a glass of wine or even a taste of alcohol, but he had a desire to work hard in the hospitality business.

His work ethic remains, and it’s also a driving reason why Solorzano-Smith today not only is a sommelier, but also the founder and managing partner of the upstart Aspen Hospitality Group (AHG), which recently acquired both Acquolina Trattoria & Pizzeria and Duemani Ristorante & Bar from sellers Luigi Giordani and Gretchen Leary.

The Aspen Local Licensing Authority last week approved the transfer of the liquor-license ownership of both restaurants to AHG, one of the final details of the transition, which was not disrupted by closures or layoffs.

“We took over as a new ownership on October 1, 2021,” Solorzano-Smith said. “We re-opened Acquolina the next day and Duemani the next day. We didn’t close and we kept them open because we wanted to learn the business, No. 1, and the best way to do it is during the offseason … we’ve been learning as we go.”

The management at Acquolina Trattoria & Pizzeria is joined by Chef Jason Franey and Carlos Solorzano-Smith (third and second to the right, respectively). Solorzano-Smith is the founder and managing partner of Aspen Hospitality Group, which recently acquired Acquolina Trattoria & Pizzeria and Duemani Ristorante & Bar. (Courtesy photo)

AHG has a staff of about 65 to 70 employees, which nicely positions Acquolina and Duemani heading into the holiday season, said Solorzano-Smith and Chef Jason Franey, the recently hired culinary director of both restaurants. Like Solorzano-Smith, Franey has paid his restaurant dues but in the kitchen, going on to win Food & Wine’s Best New Chef award and three times being named a finalist for the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef.

“We both started at the bottom, so we understand the needs of every back server, food runner and server, line cook, sous chef and chef, and I think we can relate to them,” Solorzano-Smith said. “We know Aspen, and you’ve got to know Aspen.”

Chef Berto Paglia will remain at Acquolina, and Solorzano-Smith and Franey said they’re not planning any menu overhauls at the contemporary Italian restaurants.

Arriving to Aspen by way of Park City, Utah, after a friend in hotel management turned him on to a back-server job at the Little Nell’s Montagna — “on November 6, 2009,” he will tell you without a flinch — Solorzano-Smith already had some service-industry experience. Yet Solorzano-Smith, who immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala in 2004, was in for a world different than he had expected in Aspen.

“I walked into the restaurant after I got hired, and everybody spoke so much French words, and there was wine, and I had never drank wine in my life, so it was a big challenge,” he recalled. “The first day I thought was the worst day of my life, coming to Aspen.”

But he hung in there. Working as a back server at the high-end Montagna, which is no longer open, Solorzano-Smith proved a quick study, digesting all he could about Aspen’s haute food and wine scene. The Montagna job was full-time for Solorzano-Smith, and he also did the same work part- time at Matsuhisa Aspen.

“If people know me in Aspen, they know I really work hard,” he said. “I used to work room service 5 to 8, then breakfast at the Nell, and then lunch and then dinner, and on my days off I worked at Matsuhisa, so I worked everyday.”

While Solorzano-Smith was learning the ins and outs of running a restaurant, he also was building a network of contacts in the industry and forging friendships with patrons and co-workers.

“I learned from amazing people,” he said. “Todd Clark, regional director of Matsuhisa Aspen, was a great mentor of mine in Aspen. He used to work at the Little Nell, Cache Cache, Matsu … so he really understood me and gave me a chance to move up.”

In 2012, the affable Solorzano-Smith — who once could not speak English, much less French — had become such an expert on wine, beer and sake that he won Chef Nobu’s appointment to run Matsuhisa Colorado’s beverage program in Denver, Vail and Aspen.

“I went from back server to food runner, from food runner to server, server to supervisor, supervisor to manager, then wine director,” he said, noting he also was commuting to Denver daily when Matsuhisa opened there on April 1, 2016.

His time at Matsuhisa, 12 years altogether, also proved inspiring.

“Seeing the success of Matsuhisa, when you work for smart people like them, you always want to aspire for more,” Solorzano-Smith said. “And I decided one day I want to own some restaurants in Aspen. Anywhere in the world you can own a restaurant, but owning something in Aspen is special.”

That day has come for Solorzano-Smith with AHG, a company backed by group of investors led by Aspen homeowner John Sellers, co-founder and co-CEO of Texas-based Double Eagle Development, which focuses on oil and natural gas exploration, development and production.

Solorzano-Smith is married, without children, and lives in Aspen. Work is just what he does, he said.

“When you’re in the hospitality business, you’re always in the hospitality business,” he said. “It’s not just customer service; it’s a lifestyle that you live and when you go home and you have a sense of fulfillment, you get rewarded everyday.”