Chef puts historic Durango hotel back on the food map |

Chef puts historic Durango hotel back on the food map

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Dave Cuntz, chef at the Strater Hotel in Durango, can’t take credit for the infinitely brilliant idea of serving pork posole on the hotel’s breakfast buffet. As Strater legend has it, a bellman had a thing for posole, and convinced a succession of chefs, food & beverage directors and managers to serve the Mexican dish – not normally a first-thing-in-the-morning item – for breakfast. The bellman is gone, but the posole has stuck: Along with muffins, granola and orange juice, guests at the Strater wake up to a spicy, filling concoction of pork and hominy corn. After two days of being jolted to life by the hotel’s breakfast, I found myself wondering how I was ever going to wake up without a few bowls of warm posole.Cuntz isn’t behind the tradition of posole at the Strater, nor can he claim credit for other notable aspects of the hotel: Its 122-year-old history; its address at the heart of Durango’s lively Main Avenue; the grandness of the building; the fact that for the past 83 years, the hotel has been in the hands of the same family, the Barkers, which includes the present owner (and every-day operator), Roderick Barker. Apart from the steadiness of ownership, the Strater is akin to Aspen’s Hotel Jerome, with its prominent location, its origins as an elegant jewel in a mining town, the preservation of the Victorian ambience. (The Strater predates the Jerome by two years.) The rooms and service make visitors think twice if they came to Durango thinking “cow town.”Cuntz is responsible, however, for much else that is notable about the Strater. Earlier this decade, the main restaurant at the hotel was Henry’s Steakhouse. The name was meant as a tribute to the former Cleveland pharmacist who built the hotel, but by the mid-’00s, it’s possible that it was harming the name of Henry Strater more than honoring it. Henry’s had grown tired and was under-performing.Enter Cuntz, with his passion for food, and a particular fondness for the town of Durango. A Denver native, Cuntz had attended Durango’s Fort Lewis College, where he rounded out his love of cooking by studying ceramics, French and photography. He had been away from Colorado for a decade – mostly in Louisville, Ky., where he served as executive chef for two spots, the fine dining restaurant Equus, and the more casual bistro, Jack’s. On a visit back to Durango he almost literally fell into a new job: His wife, carrying their infant child, stumbled and fell; the nearest place to get help was the Mahogany Grill, the Strater’s new venture in the old Henry’s spot. Inside, Cuntz not only got aid, but filled out a job application for the vacated chef’s position.He hasn’t stumbled since. Picked out of 250 applicants, Cuntz – whose first job was cooking in his school’s cafeteria while he was a 7th grader there, and who ran Colorado’s busiest Pizza Hut as a 17-year-old – put the Strater’s restaurant program on his sturdy shoulders.The centerpiece is the Mahogany Grill, a Victorian-style restaurant that is more comfy than kitschy. (For full-on kitsch, there is the Strater’s Diamond Belle Saloon, a lively spot complete with Western piano music and saloon girls.) Emphasizing regional ingredients, Cuntz is cooking such dishes as elk tenderloin in a chokecherry-veal demi-glace, and his signature item, Pepper Steak Herbert, flambed with brandy in a mango chutney. On a recent visit, the tomato bisque was a knockout, and a polenta encrusted sea scallop, with black truffle beurre blanc, on thin new potato slices and topped by a tomato jam, was a triumph of texture, flavor combinations and imagination. Also on Cuntz’s plate is the Office Spiritorium, a casual spot that serves appetizers and drinks; Saturdays are devoted to Tapas in the Office, when Cuntz goes to the local farmer’s market and cooks up whatever he has found. He also runs the Strater’s room service and catering operation.Cuntz attended the recent Food & Wine Classic in Aspen to trumpet the goings-on at the Strater. It was his second visit; he had also attended in 1996, while working in Louisville.”I said, God, one day I’m going to come back here,” said Cuntz, an easy-to-like graduate of the New England Culinary School who generally goes by Chef Dave. “I just loved the feeling of what it did. I got a picture with Jacques Ppin, learned a lot about the food. I knew it was a coming-of-age back then – it showed me what food is, what it meant to people.”Returning to Aspen to represent the hotel was “a smart thing for us, to expand the hotel,” said Cuntz, who was amazed that the Strater was the only hotel to have a presence at Food & Wine among the winemakers and food purveyors. “The people who go want to experience the fun things in Colorado. I want to show them they can do the same things in Durango as in Aspen. For half the price. It’s my goal to put Durango on the map with Aspen and Vail, and the Classic – what a great venue to do that.”For Cuntz, food means not only a good time, but an accessible one. Part of his task in taking over the Mahogany Grill was not only to make distinguished food, but to erase the notion that the spot was exclusively high-end. (The menu now features an eggplant, mozzarella and risotto entree for $14 , while the pork filet mignon runs under $20.) To make the point that Cuntz is serious about welcoming guests, each diner is served, upon seating, the Mahogany Cheer, a drink to loosen things up. (We got a pineapple express martini, while our underage daughter got punch.)Cuntz is as upbeat about all of Durango as he is his accomplishments at the Strater; he was sent to the Food & Wine Classic to represent the whole town. He repeats the statistic that every foodie in town seems to know: Durango has more restaurants per capita than San Francisco, and looking down Main Ave., with its bars and bistros, it seems plausible. Cuntz says it is “saturated with restaurants,” and he has no hesitation about pointing out the ones he thinks rival the Mahogany Grill for quality: Ken and Sue’s, Seasons, the Cosmopolitan, Red Snapper. In addition, there are four local microbreweries. Cuntz points out that, for a town its size – 16,000, but 45,000 in the surrounding county – Durango has few chain restaurants. He says that is due to the mom-and-pop nature of the dining scene there: Most of the good restaurants are locally owned, and people look to support the them.Cuntz is already looking to return to Aspen for the Classic. He is also hoping to make a visit to the James Beard House, a New York institution that introduces rising chefs to the food world.”It’s almost like cooking for the president,” he said. “To say you’ve gone to the Beard House, that’s pretty cool.”But Cuntz seems to care as much about the anonymous Food & Wine volunteer who stood in line for a taste of Cuntz’s steak.”For me, to give people a smile on their face, to say, ‘This was the best thing in the [Grand Tasting] Tent – and to do it in Aspen – that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “I love making people feel good. I know I was meant to do that in this life.”That’s going to be my grace when I go away. I’m not looking for stardom. I want people to remember my food and say, ‘That guy can cook a great meal.’ I want that pat on the back.”For further information, go to