Frank Bonanno in Snowmass: Perfect blend of chef, celebrity

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Laurie SmithFrank Bonanno, chef-owner of several Denver restaurants, appears - and cooks - at the second annual Snowmass Culinary & Arts Festival, Friday and Saturday in Snowmass Village.

SNOWMASS VILLAGE – Frank Bonanno has been making laps between Denver and the Roaring Fork Valley lately. This past Tuesday, the Denverite came to Aspen’s Little Nell to cook at the Greenalicious event, where he prepared a homemade burrata with sobrassada, copa and finocetta. “Like a little antipasti,” said Bonanno, who appeared alongside former Aspenites Charles Dale and Bryan Moscatello, and the Little Nell’s Robert McCormick, in a chef-studded fund-raiser for the Aspen-based Children’s Health Foundation.The Bonanno family returned to the Front Range Wednesday morning, but Bonanno is headed back to the valley Friday, to appear at the Snowmass Culinary & Arts Festival. The festival opens Friday with a handful of free demonstrations and the “Tapas & Tequilas” event at Venga Venga; at tomorrow’s main event, the Palette of Pairings feast, Bonanno will be in attendance to serve his nicoise salad with tuna conserva.Bonanno, who waited tables and cooked while attending University of Denver, before going to the Culinary Institute of America in New York state, always figured his food would be in such demand. But he hadn’t counted on the idea that his face and opinions would also be a hot commodity. When Bonanno began his career, becoming executive chef at Bruno’s Italian Bistro in Denver in 1995, his place was in the kitchen.”There were no calls, nothing,” the 43-year-old Bonanno said of the lack of invitations for in-person appearances. “That’s just the way it was in ’95. There wasn’t that huge celebrity status.”Oh, how things have changed: The Food & Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen played its part, introducing food lovers (they weren’t “foodies” yet) to the idea that personal interaction with a chef could enhance the culinary experience. But Bonanno says that television, with an entire segment of the cable spectrum devoted to cooking competitions and shows like “Man v. Food,” is the primary culprit for upending the low-profile job of chef.Bonanno, a 43-year-old New Jersey native of Sicilian descent, is engaging and well-spoken, but not in a slick, made-for-TV fashion. Bonanno owns six Denver eateries, including the French-inspired Mizuna, which he opened in 2001; Luca, which Zagat’s has called the best Italian restaurant in the U.S.; and the pair of Green Russell, a cocktail bar, and Lou’s Food Bar, both of which opened late last year. So he is familiar with the idea of the chef-as-celebrity. But it doesn’t seem to be something he is preoccupied with.”I think the Food Network, Bravo, all these shows – you’re a celebrity now, I guess,” he said last week while sitting by the pool at the Sky Hotel. “I guess the philosophy is, you’re entertaining people when they go to dinner. It’s like watching a movie, maybe, though I can’t be sure.”Bonanno sees plenty of upside to the public’s being interested in the personality of the chef. There’s more opportunity for travel. There are more chances to spend time with his fellow chefs; at Saturday’s Palette of Pairings, he will be cooking alongside Richard Sandoval of Snowmass Village’s Venga Venga; Hosea Rosenberg of Denver’s Jax Fish House and a “Top Chef” winner; Alex Seidel of Denver’s Fruition and a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2010; and Mark Fischer of the valley’s Six89 and the Pullman.But for Bonanno, perhaps the best part of having a high profile is the big platform that comes with it. The Palette for Pairings menu includes cardamom and sweet potato fritter and porcini and pancetta roasted goat. Bonanno said people who might be otherwise wary of such somewhat exotic dishes will be their trust in a chef whose name they’ve heard.”It’ gives you a bigger canvas,” Bonanno said. “It expands the popularity; it enables you to sell food you might not be able to sell. More ingredients are accepted, because you’re trusted. So they’ll eat sweetbreads.”Bonanno’s dish for the event, the nicoise salad with tuna conserva, isn’t on the exotic side. But Bonanno said it offers a good reflection of his priorities as a chef.”It says exactly what I am – a hard-working, rustic, simple chef,” said Bonanno, who will give a demonstration on making the dish on Saturday. “It takes time – it’s blanching vegetables, using fresh farm lettuce, confiting potatoes and conserving the tuna. Heavy on technique, simple in preparation.”Bonanno has some concern that the advent of the celebrity chef is attracting more people who want to be a celebrity, and too few focused on being a chef.”The younger chefs all want to be famous,” he said. “They don’t want to cook; they don’t want to pay their dues. And to get into something to be famous, that’s a tough road. People in my generation went into it because they were passionate about cooking.”