Aspen community feast calls on community of chefs

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesTeri Romero peels root vegetables Monday afternoon at Conundrum Catering's kitchen in preparation for Tuesday's Early Bird Farm to Table Community Meal at Aspen High School.

ASPEN – Asked who served as chef in the earliest years of the Early Bird Community Meal, Eden Vardy was stumped for a moment. The events – free, all-invited, pre-Thanksgiving feasts intended to spotlight locally produced food – were so loosely organized that no one actually took on the role of chef. Instead, Vardy, director of Aspen T.R.E.E., the environment-focused nonprofit that puts on the meal, acted something like the coordinator of food logistics.

“It was me driving around different places asking, ‘Hey, do you mind if we toss a couple of turkeys in your oven?'” Vardy recalled. “I guess I was kind of the chef then.”

Vardy and his team have been forced to establish a better system and chain of command. Exploding popularity will do that: The first event hosted 150 diners; Vardy expects Tuesday’s gathering, now called the Early Bird Farm to Table Community Meal, to feature more than 150 volunteers, providing table service to some 1,500 people at Aspen High School. For the past two years, Greg Shaffron took on the duties of executive chef, overseeing the meal from soup (made from organic, in-season vegetables) to nuts. (Actually, there were no nuts because virtually every ingredient was produced locally. But there have been mashed potatoes with butter, apple relish, roasted root vegetables, turkey and chicken.)

This year, with Shaffron in Nepal, Vardy has had to adjust. Ignoring the saying that too many cooks spoil the broth, Vardy is going with the kind ofall-star lineup one sees at big-ticket culinary extravaganzas. Jim Butchart, director of Aspen Skiing Co.’s on-mountain restaurants, is handling the apple harvest root soup. Sean Evans, chef de partie at Pine Creek Cookhouse, is turning organ meats into a gibier aux vin, a pate-like dish. Martin Oswald, chef-owner of Pyramid Bistro, is in charge of mashing potatoes (and infusing them with Colorado ghee and garlic). Sarah Helsley, of the Cheese Shop, has come up with a roasted vegetable medley that, of course, includes Avalanche goat cheese. For dessert, there are honey apple pumpkin carrot cookies baked by Kelly Hart, of Boden’s Butter.

The all-important job of overseeing the poultry falls to Tenille Folk, who has injected the Aspen middle and elementary schools’ lunch programs with doses of local, healthful ingredients. Folk is roasting 80 chickens, raised at the Aspen T.R.E.E. community farmyard at Cozy Point Ranch, and 10 turkeys. The chickens, a cross of belle rouge and cornish breeds, fare better at altitude than the turkeys, Vardy explained. But smart diners might make a run on the turkeys, several of which were raised in an orchard.

“Super free range. Drank whole raw milk and ate apple and pumpkin scraps. These were very spoiled turkeys,” said Vardy, who headed a team in slaughtering the birds this past week.

Overseeing the kitchen operation Tuesday is Francis Stuckens, of Green Cuisine Aspen.

On Monday, Vardy was shuttling between prep kitchens at Buttermilk, Pyramid Bistro, the Aspen schools campus and Conundrum Catering’s kitchen in the Eagles Club building. Bumps restaurant, Buttermilk Mountain and the Limelight Lodge all had loaned crews for part of the day to prepare the food.

Vardy likes the idea of having a multitude of chefs, even if his workload hasn’t exactly been lightened. Vardy, who has been working full time for two months on the event and whose team includes a volunteer coordinator, a food coordinator, a silent auction/host coordinator, a details coordinator and an overall assistant coordinator (that last one is River Morgan Vardy, Eden’s wife, whom he met at the first Early Bird Meal), likes the idea of a community of chefs preparing a community feast.

“It’s different flavors from all the restaurants that incorporate local food into their cuisine,” he said. “It brings in an overall more elegant and Aspen-specific cuisine. It makes it more of a community meal.”

Vardy says that, even back when he was acting as the quasi-chef, handing off pans of cut root vegetables to helpers to bring to various ovens around Aspen, the food was great, thanks to the care put into it. But he expects the greater measure of expertise to raise this year’s meal another notch.

“It was delicious. A lot of it was the quality of the food, the dedication and love the farmers put into it,” he said. “We’re going to transition from delicious to gourmet now.”