Charles Dale’s New Mexican renaissance | AspenTimes.com

Charles Dale’s New Mexican renaissance

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO, Colorado

Contributed photoFormer Aspenite Charles Dale is among the chefs for Tuesday's Greenalicious event, a fundraiser at The Little Nell for the locally based Children's Health Foundation.

ASPEN – During his Aspen years, Charles Dale made an emphatic mark on the local culinary scene. In 1990, Dale opened Renaissance, a French-inspired spot that led to his inclusion on the 1995 list of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs – a unique honor for a ski-town restaurateur, and, at the time, a rare recognition for a chef from outside America’s major food cities.In 2000, he opened Rustique, a French-style bistro which became another dining hot-spot. Dale’s impact wasn’t limited to his own locations; a handful of Aspen’s top chefs over the last decade, including Ryan Hardy, who put The Little Nell’s Montagna on the must-taste list, and Barclay Dodge, who owned the innovative and now much-missed Mediterranean spot Mogador, trained under Dale. You won’t get many arguments by saying that Aspen’s current reputation for fine dining started with Dale.Dale left Aspen some five years ago, after shutting down Renaissance and transforming the space into Range, a short-lived effort to emphasize ingredients of the American West. In 2008, after a stint in Savannah, Ga., where he started the packaged-good company Dale’s Kitchen, he landed in Santa Fe. The New Mexico job was a high-profile one – launching the food program at Encantado, a start-up luxury resort that features a restaurant, private dining rooms, ballroom events and more. The kitchen at Encantado, Dale points out, is the size of the entire Rustique space.But Dale, at 53, is more humble than he was at 32, and, at Encantado, he seems content to blend into the landscape to a greater degree than he did when he opened Renaissance. He recognizes that Santa Fe’s cuisine goes back a lot further in time than his brief tenure in the city, and rather than announcing his presence with something radical, he has bent his approach to the new surroundings.Santa Fe, he said, “is one of the few places in the U.S. that has a really strong indigenous cuisine – 400 years old.” Dale has become part of that tradition by building his Encantado menu, to a good extent, around the “three sisters” of native American agriculture – corn, squash, beans – plus chiles, which he says adds an “explicitly New Mexican” touch. A section of the menu at Terra, the resort’s main restaurant, is titled “Sense of Place,” and features such dishes as sweet corn soup with huitlacoche tempura (made from a highly prized spore that grows on corn) and epazote oil, and cumin grilled quail with pumpkin-seed mole and Anasazi beans.But Dale has a strong enough sense of self to know that he has something to add to the New Mexico tradition. Simply following the techniques that have been around for centuries would be turning his back on the decades of training Dale has received from the likes of Paul Bocuse, in Lyon, and from Daniel Boulud, at New York’s Le Cirque.”I come at it from a totally different perspective than the chefs who have been in Santa Fe. I have the advantage of objectivity,” he said. Rather than cook as though he were intimately familiar with New Mexican food, Dale said, “I take my own personal cuisine and add touches of the locality. That’s a more humble approach, and more true to myself.”Among the examples from the Encantado menu are the guajillo prawns, which come with a touch that is a Dale original – a white mole sauce.Dale doesn’t seem to have lost his appetite for being a student of cooking, nor has he lost the ability to have his eyes opened by a place that is new to him. In addition to learning about Santa Fe’s centuries-old cooking tradition, he has also developed an appreciation for more recent history, like the hippie-ish culture that came to Santa Fe in the 1960s, and brought with them a reverence for the land and what it produced. A current manifestation is a farmers market that Dale calls “extraordinary. The quality of the products – shepherd’s lamb, from sheep raised in the hills; hydroponic heirloom tomatoes available year-round – is amazing.”Dale returns to Aspen to participate as one of the chefs in Tuesday’s Greenalicious, at 6 p.m. The fifth annual event, at The Little Nell, is a fund-raiser for the locally based Children’s Health Foundation, and its Lunch for Life program, designed to improve school-lunch nutrition and fight childhood obesity. Among the chefs joining Dale are Robert McCormick of The Little Nell, Chris Keating of Pine Creek Cookhouse, Frank Bonanno of Denver’s Mizuna, and Bryan Moscatello, formerly of The Little Nell. Providing the beverage pairings is the Nell’s master sommelier, Jonathan Pullis. The David Torkanowsky Trio, led by the noted New Orleans pianist, will provide the music.While Dale takes a brief break from Santa Fe, he also takes a break from New Mexican cooking. Dale will prepare a sous vide and roasted duck breast – the sous vide technique, he says, addresses the problem he often finds with duck, of being over- or undercooked – with beet greens, bacon and crispy cheese gnocchi. Not that he doesn’t want to show off some of the new tricks he’s learned, but he’s looking at the evening’s bigger picture.”It’s not about me; it’s not about Santa Fe,” he said. “It’s about fitting into the flow. This speaks more to summer, matching with red wine, fitting in with what the other chefs are making. And it’s light, because it’s a big menu.”stewart@aspentimes.com