Food Matters: Anderson Ranch celebrates the art of food
When small crocks of seafood bouillabaisse arrive to our table, French chef Babette is plating turtle soup for 12 onscreen. Though the multi-course “Dinner & A Movie” tasting conceived by Anderson Ranch Arts Center’s new food and beverage director Rob Ittner and Ranch Café chef de cuisine Daniel Leon is based on the classic 1987 Danish film “Babette’s Feast,” such precise timing was purely coincidental. (The event menu rearranged courses for American palates — caviar-topped buckwheat blini are served as an amuse-bouche; endive salad with Colorado cherries come before the main attraction — and Ittner reassures us at the start that no turtles were harmed during the making of the meal.)
As we slurp rich, buttery broth and pick tender clam meat gently from shells, this synchronicity feels “magical,” as Anderson Ranch executive director Peter Waanders recaps later. The celebration in “Babette’s Feast” is happening alongside our meal in real time in Schermer Meeting Hall. Talk about an artistic moment!
Even neighboring diner Lisa Rigsby Peterson, newly appointed executive director of the Wheeler Opera House, noted in a succinct review: “I felt like I was eating with them.”
This intersection of creative disciplines — film, food, art — encapsulates the mission of Anderson Ranch. Founded in 1966, the nonprofit welcomes established and emerging visual artists and craftspeople who decamp to the bucolic campus tucked off Owl Creek Road in Snowmass Village for residencies and workshops every summer. Art is part of the landscape here, from a breeze-block pattern stamped in paint on parking lot asphalt to ceramic platters fired in the studio’s massive kiln, now presenting food from a reinvigorated kitchen team.
Tonight, art takes shape in the form of food, to explore how creativity nourishes a community.
“This is the first time we’ve taken up residence here … and it feels really special,” says Aspen Film executive and artistic director Susan Wrubel, post-screening of “Babette’s Feast” at Anderson Ranch Arts Center on July 14. “We’re showing films that are meaningful and connect people. Film is a medium that can be used to talk about any subject—art, dance, music.”
As for “Babette’s Feast,” which won the 1988 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film: “It’s beloved,” Wrubel explains. “It was the first Danish film to win an Oscar — a big accolade. It still has a 97% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. We’re thrilled to pair food and art and film together — three of the drivers, I think, for most of us in this room.”
The final installment of Anderson Ranch’s summer movie series, co-presented by Aspen Film, is “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” (2010) on Aug. 18 at 7 p.m. ($10, includes popcorn and a beverage.)
A ticketed public event during Anderson Ranch’s Recognition Week, the meal was inspired by 2021 International Artist Award honoree Simone Leigh’s personal pick for “most significant” film, says Aspen Film executive and artistic director Susan Wrubel. The pioneering ceramic artist, who hails from Brooklyn and is the first Black woman to represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale (April to November 2022), chose “Babette’s Feast,” a fable about relationships, beliefs and a very special meal in a 19th-century Danish village. Criterion Collection summarizes the 1988 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film as “a rousing paean to artistic creation, a delicate evocation of divine grace, and the ultimate film about food.”
I’d seen “Babette’s Feast,” but watching it again while tucking into cailles en sarcophage (whole roasted quail perched on a puff pastry “coffin” with foie gras-truffle-Cognac sauce) was a novel sensory experience. Similar in flavor to the “The Princess Bride,” the dramedy features food as a starring character. Prepared by Babette, a Franco-Prussian War refugee who seeks solace in a remote, religious community, the epic smorgasbord was echoed in ambition and intent at Anderson Ranch by Ittner and Leon.
“One of the things that I’m very passionate about (is) that food is art,” Ittner says. “My mission here is to get people to taste and enjoy the food. Some of the best parts of this movie are the silent moments, when you look at the expressions of people as they’re tasting the various (foods) of Babette’s feast.”
This five-course dinner was one of the first main events spearheaded by Leon, who arrived at Anderson Ranch by way of Homewood, the only four-star restaurant in Dallas, where he was sous chef. Ittner and Leon have also reimagined the Ranch Café menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Most popular with visitors is lunch, which offers a robust list of internationally influenced sandwiches and bowls (about five each, along with various sides and the option to add on protein, if desired), plus dessert and drinks. Think: a roasted lamb gyro or pastrami on rye; grilled chicken yakitori over steamed rice or a Middle Eastern “Mezza” spread, each using local ingredients and plenty of fresh produce.
Craveable breakfast items include avocado toast, egg bowls, Liege waffles, and ancient grain granola. Dinner presents composed plates, such as pan-seared smoked duck, curried dahl with grilled vegetable skewers, prime rib with baked mac and cheese. Larissa Huffman, a barista formally trained at the Onyx Coffee Lab and Arsaga’s Coffee Roasters in northwest Arkansas, returns to offer coffee beverages thanks to the venue’s new espresso machine. All together, these components offer a decidedly farm-to-table restaurant-style experience worth a trip from Aspen or parts downvalley.
“He’s done a fabulous job in the kitchen and he’s a rising star in the chef world,” Ittner enthuses of chef Leon. “I’m so excited to be working with him here at the Ranch.”
The property’s marketing and communications director, Katherine Roberts, echoes that sentiment. After all, the Ranch Café is essentially an elevated dining hall that serves Anderson Ranch staff, residents, visiting artists, workshop students (who receive a 30% discount) and the public. Frequently on the lunch menu, she notes, is the “main dish of the moment.” Recently that special took shape as, “Colorado ruby red trout with rice and haricots verts. I mean, perfectly cooked, medium-rare fish (with) crispy skin; perfectly cooked rice; tender-crisp vegetables,” Roberts recalls. “It was simply prepared but beautiful. (Leon) has a great command of flavors. He knows how to treat ingredients.”
Ittner has long been a champion of local food, as well as food’s artistic merit, as the owner of both Rustique Bistro (which closed in 2019 after 19 years) and the Cooking School of Aspen (2016 to 2019). Here in Snowmass, Ittner’s “Rustique at the Ranch” winter holiday dinner in December 2019 sold out almost two full weeks in advance.
Anderson Ranch Arts Center
The Ranch Café
Coffee: 7 a.m.
Breakfast: Mon-Fri 7:30 to 8:30 a.m.
Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:45 a.m. to 1:45 p.m.
Dinner: Sun-Fri 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
5263 Owl Creek Road, Snowmass Village
Ultimately, the Ranch Café hopes to foster “more of the Cooking School of Aspen approach,” plus additional special events over the long term, Roberts explains. Last September, for example, Anderson Ranch hosted a dinner in collaboration with Carbondale studio potter Alleghany Meadows and chef-owner C. Barclay Dodge of Bosq, each of whom brought his own art to the table.
Surveying smiling diners still nestled in their seats, content after tucking into a real-life Babette’s Feast at Anderson Ranch, Ittner marvels at his newfound role as a visiting artist of sorts. “This is what we do,” he concludes, standing alongside chef Leon and the entire culinary team during the crowd’s animated standing ovation. “This is how we express art.”