April 30, 2003
After putting in several years side by side at popular Italian eatery Campo de Fiori, chef Anthony Champness and manager Craig Hart started to think about opening a restaurant of their own in Aspen. The Australian-born Champness and Hart, a South African native, along with a third person, looked around for a space and a concept. But the recipe at the time just didn’t feel right.
“Craig and myself and another South African guy looked at the space where Toscana is at,” said Champness, who worked five years as the chef at Campo. “But we decided the other guy was not a viable partner.”
Champness and Hart bided their time until a viable third partner entered the picture. That person was Campo waiter Vince Lahey. Lahey not only offered an idea for a restaurant, but also came with a high profile in the community, as one of the upbeat hosts of the cable TV program “Aspen Today.”
The patience seems to have been rewarded. This past December, the trio opened Genre Bistro, a casual, French-inspired restaurant and bar at 316 E. Hopkins Ave. The renovated Victorian had been occupied over the past two years by the short-lived Harry’s Velvet Room and Thaitini, and before that by the Howling Wolf, a memorable and noble nightspot that couldn’t make it as a restaurant.
But with Genre, all the ingredients seem to be in place. The restaurant did solid business throughout its first winter, and the current off-season, when new restaurants usually sweat it out until the summer crowds arrive, has occasionally seemed more like mid-March.
All three partners credit the invaluable experience they got at Campo for Genre’s early success. “What we learned at Campo is so invaluable for this town,” said Lahey. “How to treat people, how wonderfully supportive they are if they like what you’re doing. And especially that they like to support local people. They like to see that we renovated it ourselves, that we built the tables, that it’s Anthony’s menu.”
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Anthony’s menu reflects a sharp break from the thoroughly Italian fare he prepared at Campo. The three partners decided early on that they would not attempt to duplicate Campo’s fare – and not crowd Aspen with yet another Italian restaurant. They settled instead on French brasserie-style food, a niche that has not been saturated in Aspen.
Genre’s menu, the first Champness has created on his own after years as a chef, features dishes not found elsewhere in Aspen: a chicken hash with tomato concasse appetizer; wild boar bangers with sauteed onions; and two lamb dishes – lamb shank Moroccan-style with plum tomato jus and signature dish rôti d’agneau, a roasted rack of lamb with a pesto-crusted tomato and black olive jus. The bar menu includes braised oxtail and ripped pasta beef stroganoff.
Designing Genre was a risk. Rather than spend money on a thorough makeover, the owners, along with various girlfriends, took on the task of remodeling the space themselves. They made no structural changes, though the kitchen, which had practically been abandoned by Harry’s Velvet Room, needed considerable attention. Working from photos and past restaurant experience, they came up with a winner, a space that is inviting from the moment you walk inside.
A talented trio
As much as the food and decor, Genre seems marked by the three owners and the balanced talents they contribute. While all have extensive restaurant experience, Champness’ expertise is in the kitchen, Hart has strong management skills, and Lahey is an ideal front-of-house personality.
Champness – at 36, five years older than both of his partners – entered the chef’s life in his native Melbourne. He had an apprenticeship that combined full-time kitchen work at various hotels and restaurants with one day a week of college classes. After spending the winter of 1996 in Aspen, he went to Europe, where he worked in a series of top London and Paris kitchens, including the Savoy Hotel and Le Pont le Tour. That variety of experiences has given Champness a distinctive cooking style. While Genre’s menu is fundamentally French, he says his food benefits from techniques he has learned everywhere he has been.
“Traveling extensively through Europe and the Middle East, you see so much. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work,” he said, adding that Genre’s wine list reflects an Australian influence.
And cooking in restaurants that were constantly busy has taught Champness how to keep his head while running a kitchen. “Going to London was like doing the whole school thing over again,” he said, noting that, had the Genre opportunity not come along, he probably would have left Aspen for Europe or Australia. “It just all got thrown back at me. You get hammered every day working as a sous chef.”
Lahey’s restaurant experience dates back to when he was 12 years old and worked as a dishwasher, then a busboy and finally a waiter – what he refers to as the “no-talent positions” – in the small resort of Eastover, Mass. Then, for more than three years as a host of “Aspen Today,” Lahey, a natural extrovert, acquired talents as a pitchman. He doesn’t shy away from using his television profile to bring people into Genre.
“People recognize me,” he said. “One of the things I do is ski on the mountain and hand out my card a lot. There’s a good synergy – I talk about skiing-related things, and I tell them about the restaurant as well.”
One of the most difficult parts of launching Genre was not being overwhelmed by the challenges of opening a restaurant in one of the most expensive, competitive towns in the country. The partners kept their plans quiet as they moved the restaurant from idea toward reality. But when word about Genre got out, they heard plenty from the naysayers.
“Your close friends, who you thought were your friends, are all scoffing behind your back while they’re wishing you well,” said Champness.
Lahey, however, knew there was a lot of truth in those whispers. “You think of doing this in Aspen, it’s crazy. We’re going into the hardest business in the hardest place in the world to do it,” he said. “The pitfalls in this town are huge. You make the wrong mistake, you’ll be gone before you know it. Especially in a space that’s gone through what this one has.”
With a successful winter under their belts, the owners of Genre are now plotting what more can be done with their space. The restaurant is staying open through the off-season, except on Mondays, a decision that is already paying benefits. The summer menu, to be instituted when Champness returns from vacation in mid-May, will include several lighter dishes. A plan to add lunch for this summer is still being considered. And the Genre team is brainstorming on how best to use the restaurant’s terrace and how to bring in an earlier bar crowd. (A new 5:30 p.m. happy hour, plus a distinctive set of beers on tap that includes Fat Tire, Stella Artois, Pilsner Urquell and Chimay, seems to be a good start.)
Given their reputations in the local restaurant business, Champness, Hart and Lahey didn’t have the new business-owner’s common nightmare – that no one would walk through the doors. But they have been pleased by how often the same people walk through those doors over and over.
“We weren’t worried that no one would come,” said Lahey. “We were worried that no one would come back. And we’ve had some very, very loyal customers coming once, twice a week.”
“I think we’re doing extremely well,” said Champness, “for a new business at a time when tourism is down. We’re hearing from our purveyors how well we’re doing; we’re getting great feedback from the concierges. And those are the people who would know.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
“Your close friends, who you thought were your friends, are all scoffing behind your back while they’re wishing you well.”
– Anthony Champness, Genre co-owner