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Celebrating Aspen’s food scene

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Shane Coffey
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ASPEN – Foodies – chefs, producers, winemakers, purveyors, journalists – have come from far and wide across the country to participate in the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, which opens Friday.No doubt, much of the weekend conversation – over New Zealand lamb and Tuscan reds – will be about the importance of local produce. In that spirit, we celebrate a handful of locals – a cheese-maker, a chef, a restaurateur and a distributor of organic farm goods – making a difference in the way Aspen enjoys its food.

As a chef, Shane Coffey has developed practices that would be commended in the locavore movement. While executive chef at Alias, on New York’s Lower East Side, he typically walked to the Greenmarket at Union Square, where he would stock up on produce that came from the area; he estimates that 80 percent of the ingredients he cooked at Alias were locally raised. At Lulu Wilson, where he has been chef for two years, Coffey uses Colorado grapes, lamb, corn, eggs, potatoes and more.As an eater, however, Coffey has been something of a disgrace to the ethos of fresh, seasonal and healthful. “Busy restaurant chefs eat like crap. At least from the school I came from,” said the 39-year-old, who attended the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. “I’m a chef.”Coffey’s wake-up call came in the winter of ’07-’08. A friend was visiting from San Francisco and the two were skiing Aspen Mountain. Over a pizza lunch, Coffey began a diatribe about food and eating habits – until he was interrupted by his irate buddy.”He said, ‘I’m not listening to you. Because you eat like crap. Look what you’re eating right now. How many cans of ravioli have you eaten this week?'” recalled Coffey. The chef conceded the point, and the two made a bet on whether Coffey could change his gustatory ways. The winner would be treated to dinner at Chez Panisse, the famed Berkeley, Calif. eatery that turned America on to the idea of local cuisine.Inspired by the particulars of the wager, Coffey decided to go local. Immediately, and with no game plan for how he would make the transformation. He scrounged through the cupboards at home and came up with some mint and honey which he made into a tea: “Which was good, because I was hung-over, and that’s an excellent hangover cure,” he said. It wasn’t a diet for the long run, however, and soon Coffey’s girlfriend pointed out the paleness of his skin. Digging further in the pantry, he found Colorado bread, and later, some jerky.After getting over the first few weeks – which he calls his “hunter-gatherer” phase, when most of his protein was meat fried in a pan – Coffey became smarter about his venture. He discovered sources for Colorado apples and meats. Most significantly, he used Jack Reed, a Delta County-based distributor of organic foods. Eventually he learned to love locally grown raw oats and meats, and juices from Big B’s orchards, in Delta County. Coffey packed himself meals that were more about health than convenience: “I became my mom,” he said. He went 12 weeks eating nothing but Colorado products; his diet is now approximately 80 percent local.Oddly, Coffey came to Aspen with locavore notions in mind. He researched Mark Fischer, from Carbondale’s Six89 and Phat Thai, and Ryan Hardy, from the Little Nell to ensure him that a menu focused on Colorado ingredients was viable. Finally that reality settled in on a personal level.”I think about what I’m eating all the time,” said Coffey, who has lost 20 pounds, and recently quit cigarettes. “I look at labels not for the calories, but to see how far away it came from. And I think: ‘OK, how long ago was this picked?'”It makes people feel better, knowing they get food from this area. It’s the right thing to do on all levels. It’s getting us back to where we need to be.”

It is Jack Reed’s solemn wish to have every person on the planet carry the same respect for farmers that he has. The best way to do that, he figures, is to create as direct a link as possible between the farmer and the consumer. Which is why Reed loves farmers’ markets: Take a shopper away from the supermarket, give her face time with the person who planted and nurtured and harvested the food, and she’ll have a greater appreciation for the produce.”That’s the beauty of markets – when the people meet the farmer, there’s an emotional charge that happens,” said Reed. “If they can put a face to the whole process – that there’s a person spending their whole day in the cheese factory making the loaf of chvre, that there’s a farmer spending 16 hours a day in his field – the people are happier with the food. And the farmer is happier with his chosen profession.”There’s a problem in this equation: The farmer spending his day in the field doesn’t have time left over to personally bring his goods to a market. That’s where Reed comes in. The 62-year-old, who moved to Colorado two years ago, from Massachusetts, serves as a distributor of Delta County produce. This past spring – months before farmers markets, including the Aspen Saturday Market, were cropping up across the Western Slope – Reed set up a weekly organic farm stand in Aspen. He has had to wander around, but now seems to have found a comfy, stable spot outside Victoria’s Espresso and Wine Bar to sell local greens, juice, fruit, cheese, pies, honey and more, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Reed also supplies a handful of local restaurants, and participates in farmers markets in Montrose and Crested Butte. Where he can’t get into the official market, as in Telluride, he sets up his own.There is one downside to his role: It puts a middle layer between the consumer and the farmer. “But I try to keep a low presence, not get in the way of the farmer too much,” said Reed, who lives on Delicious Orchards, in Delta County. (Jeff Schwartz, who owns Delicious, is his business partner.) But Reed, with his bushy beard and fondness for chatting with the customers, isn’t likely to be mistaken for a faceless distributor of food products. He takes a vocal advocates’ role in promoting food, becoming more an extension of the farmers, rather than their middleman. He is an educator, advising buyers to learn about canning, pickling and preserving – particularly important in Colorado, where, as he says, the food “all comes in a big whoosh.” Reed is especially passionate in persuading shoppers that organic produce is worth the extra cost.”You have to convince people that a pint of $5 strawberries is better than a pound of $3 strawberrries,” he said, offering tastes of the former to customers at his market last week. “That’s why markets are so great. They get everybody in the mood where money is almost not an object. In a supermarket, you’re more likely to just grab the cheap strawberries.”Reed is content to be part of that process of delivering and persuading. Though it takes him away from being a farmer himself – he does find time to grow wheatgrass – he believes his job is a vital one.”There’s a lot of food over there [in Delta County] that needs a home,” he said. “There are more people growing the food than moving the food. I’ve chosen to do the moving.”Like anybody my age, I wanted to change the world. But I’ve scaled down my aspirations. Now I just want to change the way people eat. But if you are what you eat, then that’s a significant change.”

Wendy Mitchell had a vision for her cheese-making operation: orderly, sterile, calm. “My fantasy was all these little cheeses lined up in a row in these chrome stainless racks. Total order, and everything perfect,” said the 43-year-old Aspenite.Avalanche Cheese Company, which Mitchell launched in March, has fulfilled her cravings – in part. Cheese-making, she has found, is a precise, scientific craft. The process requires few hands, so the mother of two preadolescents gets her solitude; aging the cheese, often for months, adds a measure of serenity to the operation. As foods go, cheese is a relatively neat one, and the end product – soft, white logs and creamy spreads – is uniform and easy to manage.Mitchell, however, didn’t count on getting into farming. But when she decided to make cheese, she realized that local sources of milk were more scarce than she had figured. So two winters ago, Mitchell bought a 130-acre Paonia farm, which is now stocked with 80-plus goats.Those who have known the Houston-born and -bred Mitchell could easily see her getting into the business end of cheese. She has been a cheese fanatic from childhood, and her career in Texas was capped by opening a chain of high-quality Mexican joints, Mission Burritos. But messing around with animals and dirt?”If you asked any friend of mine if I would ever own farms and goats, they’d say no way,” said Mitchell, who got her start in the food industry managing the bar at the Four Seasons in Houston, a job that required pantyhose and high heels. “I’m much more of a city person. I never exercised till I was 30. I didn’t have any of the hippie chick in me.” Mitchell appeared for a recent interview in pigtails, a bandana on her head – sure signs that some hippie has seeped in. It has been a quick transformation, but one with distinct steps. The first step was the year she spent in Scotland, spanning 2006-’07. While her husband, Todd, was studying environmental sciences, Wendy searched out cheese-makers to teach her their techniques. The best teachers, she found, were rural women in their 70s, who had started making cheese after World War II.Then came the farm: “Now that we’re doing it, I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Mitchell. “I have absolute confidence in the cleanliness, the quality of the milk, what the goats are eating.”The final piece was attending Acres U.S.A., an organic farming conference in St. Louis last fall. “I felt like I’d been to a bible conference. Like I’d been saved,” said Mitchell, who is working towards getting her farm certified as organic. “That’s when I felt that my farm was such a privilege. That you could be a thoughtful steward of the land, rather than suck everything out of it.”She also believes organic practices leads to better cheese. “The quality of the goats’ lives matters. If they’re well cared for, they’re going to be healthier and happier,” said Mitchell.The reception given her cheese proves the point. The chefs at Snowmass’ Sage Restaurant rave about Avalanche’s chvre; D19 uses it in a salad of greens, grilled peaches and maple vinaigrette. Avalanche products – including a truffled honey lemon spread, with blue, robiola and cheddar on the way – can be found at the Hotel Jerome and Lulu Wilson, and most markets throughout the valley.Mitchell was sure she’d love the cheeses she made; she said the first log of chvre that came out of her Basalt creamery was “perfect.” What she didn’t anticipate was everything that came with it: goats, grass, getting to know other farmers.”Letting in all these new experiences and people that would never have occurred to me before – I think I’m morphing into something I never knew I was,” said Mitchell.And the truly dirty business is still ahead. Mitchell plans to add goat-and-pork sausage to her plate.

Peace. Love. Rebirth. Friendship. These are the words Elizabeth Plotke-Giordani uses when talking about her latest business venture. Which might lead one to think that the 43-year-old Aspenite has left the restaurant trade to open an ashram, or worse, a Sedona-style crystal shop.But Plotke-Giordani, a prominent figure in Aspen’s restaurant scene for 15 years, remains in the food industry. The spiritual words apply to her new restaurant, Gisella, which she; her husband, Luigi Giordani; and Marcelo Ferreira, opened this past week, in the space previously occupied by Gusto, which was also owned by Plotke-Giordani and her husband.”This is a rebirth of our creativity again,” she said. “Every person involved in this put in so much love. People have told me that, passing by, they feel this energy inviting them in. That’s the love that went into it. And the peacefulness – this is the most peaceful project I’ve ever done.”The tranquility comes from the partnership with Ferreira, who owned the now-closed local spot, Toscana The Giordanis have known Ferreira for 20 years, and have long thought about collaborating with him.”There’s an old breed of restaurateurs, with a real old-school work ethic,” said Plotke-Giordani. “And there aren’t many people in this town who have that. He has it. He’s like a bull. You have to have a certain strength in this business and we’ve always recognized that in him.”Perhaps even rarer than the work ethic is the alignment of vision. “We agree on everything,” said Plotke-Giordani of her new business partner. “That’s hard to believe.”The rebirth element connects to Plotke-Giordani’s other restaurant, Campo de Fiore, which she opened with Luigi in 1994. The couple has since opened three more spots – Campo de Fiores in Vail and Denver, and Gusto. But while all successful, none had the spark of creativity that was poured into that first restaurant.”Not since Camp Aspen have I felt about a restaurant the way I feel about” Gisella, said Plotke-Gordani. “Campo Aspen was an absolute labor of love. It was an obsession with detail. Everything was built by hand. And at the time it was very unique; there was nothing like it in town.” The Campos that followed, she added, simply “followed that pattern.”Gisella also provides a chance to reinvent the kind of food the Giordanis are known for. The restaurant remains Italian. But with chef Jorma Cox, who was brought into Gusto a year ago with the idea that he would head the kitchen in the new project, the cuisine leans toward cleaner flavors, more local ingredients. Among the notable dishes are a sea urchin pasta, and a contadina appetizer, of marinated vegetables and goat cheese.As for the elegant look of the space, Plotke-Giordani has a few more descriptive words that aren’t commonly applied to a restaurant.”Feminine and sexy and sophisticated. But truly comfortable,” she said. “Gisella – it represents that feminine feeling. It represents a beautiful, sexy woman.”stewart@aspentimes.com


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