An early taste for cooking | AspenTimes.com

An early taste for cooking

Greg Schreier

Malou Werner, executive chef at Ajax Tavern, works next to Alejandro Vazquez as they prepare for a recent lunch crowd. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

Malou Werner is simultaneously a student and teacher, a master of cooking constantly learning more about her trade.Her classroom is smaller than most, with hardly enough room to squeeze past her fellow cooks. There are no desks, just flames erupting on one side from sizzling pans of sautéed greens, chicken and fish. She removes tongs from the back pocket of her checkered pants, checking to see if those are ready.She quickly crosses the kitchen to put the finishing touches on a grilled tuna pressata sandwich. Shortly after, she dices lettuce for a salad, coming perilously close to her fingers. For any task Werner can’t get to, she’ll call out a few commands in “kitchen Spanish” to her staff.The 22-year-old Werner became the executive chef at the Ajax Tavern three weeks ago. She may direct her team of chefs in the kitchen, knowing what’s happening in every corner. But chefs always embark upon uncharted waters, a constant learning experience of trial and error to create the most flavorful dishes possible.”After a while you learn how to taste things,” Werner said, taking a break from her duties recently. “It’s just a learning process your whole life. Food expands so much, and people are trying the weirdest things.”Werner, originally from Sweden, is a rarity in the culinary world. Many chefs work their way through the kitchen throughout many years – spending a few years decorating pastries and desserts, then maybe some time on the salad line. Even achieving the rank of sous chef can take several years.

Werner lived in Florida briefly, but her upbringing in Sweden’s cold climate and her passion for snowboarding made Werner want to move to a “winter place,” so she came to Colorado in November.”I just took a shot and moved here, really,” she said. “I knew it was beautiful here with good snow.”Before that, Werner spent three years studying the ins and outs of the restaurant industry in Sweden. But the decision to become a chef came early in her life. Werner worked in a pizzeria in Sweden and picked up what she could from chefs in other restaurants.”In Sweden, when you’re 14 or 15, you need to choose what direction you want to go,” Werner said.Werner admits that language was a barrier when she first came to the United States. Even though her English is nearly perfect now, she still has to look up a word on occasion – she loves food because it knows no such barriers.”Food is the best joy of life, I think,” Werner said. “A regular person can just go out and eat and experience.”

And finding that joy often means accommodating strange or complicated customer requests. But what some in the restaurant industry might see as a nuisance or inconvenience, Werner embraces.”I care a lot. I don’t care if the customer wants something and it’s different. I do it,” she said. “I want it to be as perfect as possible, every dish.”Werner ultimately leaves the menu decisions to customer feedback, but she does have a few changes in mind. For starters, she plans to add homemade ice cream and a cherry-garnished chocolate cake. Plus, she plans to accent the simple Mediterranean/Italian cuisine with seasonal vegetables and a slightly different plate presentation.”I don’t want to totally change the menu,” Werner said.But even if the dishes don’t undergo obvious change, a new chef always brings a new technique and flavor. As she points out, the same dish will taste different cooked by two different chefs.”I don’t mind mixing ingredients and coming up with something,” Werner said. “The best way [to cook] is combining a lot of different flavors from everywhere.”

One of the biggest challenges for an executive chef goes beyond food. Werner guides a team of six cooks and has plenty of prep work to do. Lately, she’s been working every day – sometimes as long as 14 to 16 hours per day. Even for those few hours she’s not at work, the Ajax Tavern fills her thoughts.”It’s a little bit hard because you think about work 24/7,” she said.Rafael Gomez Diaz has been a chef at the Ajax for a year and knows the bustle of cranking out as many as 400 lunches a day during ski season.”Here in the wintertime, it’s super busy. Mucho trabajo,” Diaz said.But Diaz sees Werner’s youth as an advantage.”It’s really cool to work with her because she’s still young but has a lot of experience,” Diaz said. “She knows how to be a leader in the kitchen and has a lot of respect for herself. That’s why everyone respects her.”Greg Schreier’s e-mail address is gschreier@aspentimes.com

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