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Cooking up creativity

Jeanne McGovern
The Aspen Times
Shawn Lawrence, executive chef of 39 Degrees at the Sky Hotel, in the kitchen where he's worked for more than 10 years. Lawrence said his culinary education comes mostly from "the school of hard knocks."
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

As executive chef of 39 Degrees at Sky Hotel, Shawn Lawrence knows his way around the kitchen.

“My culinary education came from the school of hard knocks,” said Lawrence, who has worked at Sky for 10 years, with another 14 years’ experience in kitchens up and down the Roaring Fork Valley before that. “You’ve got to get into a kitchen to learn how to work in a kitchen; hands-on experience is key.”

So what better way to keep on learning than with a one-month foodie sabbatical?

“I’m so ready for this experience,” he said. “I think it’s going to be exactly what I need to recharge myself and our menu.”

In less than a week, Lawrence will begin his adventure with two weeks of bow hunting for elk in New Mexico, followed by a two-week food tour of Japan. The sabbatical is offered by Kimpton, which operates Sky, to all top-level managers and executive chefs after 10 years of employment.

And while Lawrence has never been to Japan, he knows from past travel experiences that what he learns will be incorporated into his winter menu at 39 Degrees. The slopeside restaurant and bar’s current menu features flavors drawn from travels through Vietnam and Cambodia (one example: crispy chili and garlic chicken wings tossed in a sweet fish sauce with Thai chilies and topped with shaved cucumber rand cilantro).

While in Japan, Lawrence will spend a few days in Tokyo — dining “everywhere from noodle shops to Geisha houses.” He will then venture to the mountains, where he thinks he’ll find some comfort in a “different type of mountainous cuisine.” He’ll also spend time at a spa, where food is the focus.

“I’m sure I’ll come back inspired to add new twists to our menu,” he said. “It’s about bringing back ideas and creating dishes that I not only like, but that I think our customers will like.”

But really, at the end of the day, Lawrence’s foodie sabbatical is about returning to his roots.

“It’s a real-world experience,” he said. “And after 10 years in the same kitchen, you can become a bit too comfortable; this helps restoke the fire.

“I think that the best thing a chef can do is continue learning and trying new things.”

jmcgovern@aspentimes.com


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