Aspen Times Weekly Q&A: Piñon’s owner Rob Mobilian
Perched on the second floor of a Mill Street building overlooking Hopkins Avenue’s “Restaurant Row” and Ajax beyond, Piñon’s boasts a true bird’s-eye view of Aspen. So it figures that the restaurant’s 1988 founding chef of 25 years—and owner since 2001—Rob Mobilian has seen it all. As chief operator of a well-oiled machine, Mobilian still steps onto the kitchen line from time to time, though most nights you’ll find him on the floor, greeting guests and ensuring impeccable service.
Contrary to popular belief, Piñon’s has changed, during a slow, steady evolution. Just last week, Mobilian added a new, young chef to his team; soon the 40-seat outdoor deck will get a summer facelift.
Here Mobilian reflects on 32 years—the good, bad, and beyond compare.
AR: What was the restaurant scene when owner Fred Mayerson hired you as chef to open Piñon’s in 1988?
RM: He had just sold the Chi-Chi’s chain and moved to Aspen. There were half the restaurants in town. It was us, Gordon’s, Abetone, The Golden Horn, The Parlour Car—six or seven high-end restaurants—and then Little Annie’s, J-Bar, etc. Marvin Davis (who acquired 20th Century Fox) owned the ski company. (Piñon’s) was packed every night. For the first five years it was super Hollywood.
AR: Why was that?
RM: People feel comfortable here. Celebrities love coming here because they don’t get bothered. I’ve met tons of good people who have made (Piñon’s) their second living/dining room.
AR: Any memories stand out?
RM: I have crazy stories. Jack Nicholson with two hookers in the booth, he’d pull out a giant vial and just swoosh. I talked to Bill Belichick—another Jersey guy, he was coaching the Cleveland Browns—in the hallway for 20 minutes. He was my hero because he coached the (New York) Giants. I’ve talked with Sidney Poitier, Sally Field, Kevin Costner. I had dinner with O.J. Simpson just two months before he ….
Arnold Schwarzenegger gave me this giant cigar one night! Donald Trump came here for New Year’s in 1990 and told me to ‘Have a great decade.’ Marla Maples was at the Jerome and his wife, Ivanka, was at The Little Nell with their little kids. He came here with Marla.
Piñon’s regular clientele is the foundation, though.
I enjoy building relationships. People who have been coming here for 30 years, who were in their 30s and 40s, are now in their 60s and 70s. I know all their kids. And they’re still coming.
AR: Including the next generation of clientele?
RM: There are customers who came in when they were 6 (with family), then 13. Now they’re 25, 26, coming in with (significant others).
AR: How do you reconcile changing Piñon’s menu without discouraging diners who crave a specific meal year after year?
RM: We have dishes that have been on a long time, then I take them off and people are so upset. Like the macadamia-crusted ahi; chicken with country stuffing. You try to keep core staples, then do a lot of specials so people can try new stuff. We’ve learned what Aspen guests want.
AR: What do Aspen diners want?
RM: They want a steakhouse, but nothing too foofy. The majority of (guests) are outdoorsy, country folks. They want the best-quality ingredients cooked perfectly: a good steak, accompaniments and service. Of course, we have an amazing wine list. (Sommelier) Tim Bean has been here 20 years, and he has a 900-bottle list of some of the best wines in the world.
AR: What are Piñon’s defining dishes?
RM: Rack of lamb, veal chops, steaks, seafood, pasta, caviar. The whole-roasted Dover sole, Freddy Salad, filet of beef with foie gras, duck quesadilla—those four (will never change). Everything else has evolved.
AR: Recently you hired chef Kyle Raymond to join chefs Bret Kistner and Olegario Miramontes—in Piñon’s kitchen 11 and 15 years, respectively.
RM: We are so excited to have him—this is an awesome team! Chef Kevin (Ribich) just left after 18 years, so Bret is taking over. They’re gonna come out with some new dishes and bring it.
Says chef Bret Kistner: “A few weeks ago we needed help. Rob took his suit jacket off, came down behind the line, and killed it. It’s nice to have that dynamic, and him understand the new style of the restaurant. He’s been butchering a lot.”
AR: Piñon’s has been credited with launching Aspen’s bar menu trend, yes?
RM: I think I kick-started it in the early ’90s. (Gesturing to bar tables) This used to be a waiting area. People kept asking if they could eat at the bar. So we put in some high-tops, (and offered) a bar menu: prix-fixe, three courses, a full meal for $32 bucks. So, all the locals started coming in. It’s $38 (for two courses) now. Bar menus are everywhere.
AR: What is your fundamental key to success?
RM: Consistency. When people come in here we know their name, they feel at home. You’ve got to create an energy, and make people feel good.
AR: How do you retain talent in a competitive hospitality industry?
RM: Treat them with respect. This is a professional business, created thousands of years ago, refined in Europe, and brought (to America). It’s not just waiting tables or (being) a busboy. It’s a profession. My goal, which took a while to figure out: keep staff happy. If your staff is happy, they make customers happy.
AR: Any disadvantage to being around 32 years?
RM: People forget about you. They try all they new places. Then they do come back and say, I forgot! It’s so great! People think we’re an older (crowd), which we are. But they’ve been supporting me 32 years. I’ve met many people who have been (in Aspen) 20 years who have never been in Piñon’s. Well, give it a try. It’s not as pricy as you think.
AR: Good example: Piñon’s most iconic dish is the humble Freddy Salad. Any idea how many served?
RM: I wish I knew! Everybody loves it. It’s a BLT (with) the greatest ranch dressing in the world. We’re trying to get the recipe down with this company in Dayton, Ohio. Freddy (Mayerson) is in Cincinnati. Hopefully within the next year we’ll have it bottled and on shelves. I tell everyone: the Freddy Salad put my kids through college.
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