Full plate: Chef Mark Fischer cooks up community
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – With the recent opening of his third restaurant – the Pullman, in Glenwood Springs – Mark Fischer has unofficially become a serial restaurateur. In this age of brand-name chefs who seek to extend their brand (to Las Vegas hotels, hip Miami neighborhoods, sometimes even to Aspen), the establishment of the Pullman necessarily prompts the question: Is Fischer being pulled away from the thing that made him notable to begin with – namely, the food?”That’s always a source of conflict – when chef-owner is your title, but cook is what you are,” Fischer said one recent afternoon, sitting inside the Pullman and successfully shutting out the distractions of a two-week-old restaurant that has become an instant hit. “You struggle to spend time in the kitchen.”Good thing, then, that other “jobs” he holds – urban renewalist, community builder – don’t require much of Fischer’s attention. They are just the natural fallout from Fischer’s main gig as restaurateur.The corner space on Seventh Street, directly across from the Amtrak station, where the Pullman sits, was previously occupied by the Club Roxie, a nightclub that lived under the steady gaze of the local authorities. The Pullman is, in all ways, the virtual opposite – a sparkling, wide open space with exposed brick walls, windows that look out on the train station, and a clientele that runs from businessmen on lunch break to, one recent night, a family from Castle Rock that included a 7-year-old boy chowing down on beer-steamed mussels with chorizo and fries. The Glenwood police, says Fischer, have expressed their admiration for the restaurant – not so much for the food (the closest thing to donuts on the menu is a small plate of bacon beignets with maple crma) but for how the Pullman – along with other spots like Juicy Lucy’s Steakhouse and the Glenwood Canyon Brewpub – has helped elevate the neighborhood.”It’s shocking that people view this as a community-changing place. It’s shocking that people thank us for opening a restaurant,” said Fischer, an animated 52-year-old who communicates with hands, eyes and shoulders. “But I think every community – I get this from real estate agents – wants a restaurant to help define it as a community. Or else it’s a truck stop, or a cow-town. It’s what defines it as a cool place to live.”I think the people were always here. We suspected they were here,” Fischer added of the food-curious locals who have filled the Pullman. “But until we opened the doors, I had no clue what the demographic was. But over two weeks, it’s been, ‘Wow, look at all these dressed-up people.’ They just needed a gathering place. We always suspected Glenwood Springs was a cool place – and it always was. But there was a certain amount of traffic here that was untapped, a demand that wasn’t being met.”If Fischer had his way, the restaurant might be altering Glenwood’s culinary landscape even more than it has. He has proposed putting such dishes as roast bone marrow with parsley salad and oxtail ragout on the menu, but his staff has cautioned him about leaping too far, too fast. But the Pullman is already ground-breaking enough. As it stands, there are plenty of items that haven’t been seen before in Glenwood (or Aspen, for that matter): pierogis with caramelized onion, truffle potato and scallion crme fraiche; pan roasted black ruff – a flaky, white-meat Atlantic fish – with artichoke-and-potato pan roast and mustard pan sauce. Soon, Fischer plans to spring a braised North Fork goat on diners.With the combination of the ambience, the cuisine and the crowd it attracts, the Pullman can be seen as not exactly revolutionary, but more as the logical bridge into Glenwood’s future.••••Fischer’s two previous restaurants helped point the way forward for another local community – Carbondale. Six89 opened in 1998 where the respectable Landmark Bed & Breakfast had stood along Main Street. Four years later he opened Phat Thai, a few blocks down Main. This time, as with the Pullman, it was a case of dramatic urban renewal; the building had been occupied by the Palomino Grill. (“A dumpy steak, burger joint,” Fischer said. “I think we have a reputation for taking places that have a bad reputation and turning them around.”)Six89 put Fischer on the map as a chef; the restaurant earned glowing features in Bon Appetit and Gourmet, and got saturation coverage throughout Colorado. For the last several years, Fischer has been a semifinalist for the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award. Taken together, Six89 and Phat Thai have done wonders for Carbondale as a foodie destination – Six89 by being committed to and getting creative with local, seasonal ingredients; Phat Thai by doing the utterly unexpected – Thai food – and giving it a fresh spin.But those restaurants have done more than raise the culinary bar. They have served as gathering places where Carbondale residents can cement their sense of community, and have simultaneously helped the town define what it can and should aspire to.”I think these places have become the heart and soul of the community,” said Tom Passavant – a co-founder and chapter leader of Slow Food Roaring Fork/Aspen, a journalist with a specialty in food, and a decade-long Roaring Fork Valley resident who has lived in Carbondale for nearly three years. “Just as Slow Food seeks to build community through food, using the pleasures of the table, that’s epitomized by what happens at Six89 and Phat Thai. That’s where the community gathers and talks, and so many benefits radiate from that.”And they define Carbondale for people outside the community – not just from a food and economic perspective, but they define the spirit of the place. I know people who live in Vail who are incredibly envious of Carbondale because it has Six89 and Phat Thai. They drive over for their birthday dinners.”Fischer tends to deflect such big-picture notions. His goal for each week, he said, is “to piss off as few people as possible – employees, vendors, guests. It’s that one-meal, one-diner-at-a-time thing.”The community that gets Fischer’s primary focus is the relatively small one of his staff. Offer Fischer praise, and his knee-jerk reaction is to deflect it to his workers, whom he commends for their loyalty and abilities. The Pullman came about not because of a great lease opportunity, or because Fischer had a burning desire to get into the Glenwood market. Rather, his staff had developed to the point where he thought they needed and deserved more room.”There are great ideas out there all the time. It’s how many people you have to help you pull it off that dictates how it will work,” said Fischer, who gives over his restaurant for numerous local causes (Slow Food, 5Point Film Festival, Colorado Avalanche Information Center and more). “When we felt we had that critical mass of people, that’s when we felt it was time to move forward. They deserve every opportunity to see that this place is the next … whatever. The next thing.”••••
The son of an engineer father and a nurse mother, Fischer grew up in Pittsburgh as part of “the Birdseye generation,” children of the ’60s who were led to believe that vegetables were raised in the freezer. “I don’t think I saw asparagus in real life till I was 30,” he said.At West Virginia’s Bethany College, Fischer was a pre-med student. But for both money and fun, there was bartending. “I just liked the business – the money, the hours. What’s there not to like about tending bar?” he said. After a few years bartending back in Pittsburgh, however, he saw things not to like: “I found I wasn’t aging gracefully,” he said. “So I segued into the kitchen, and culinary school.”The Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts, in Pittsburgh, was a decent experience; Fischer spent much of his time observing that he seemed to know as much as his teachers. He gave a four-star review to his experience of working at the city’s Cafe Allegro, run by a forward-thinking Italian family. Though located far from the country’s foodie capitals, and several years before the term “foodie” was even conceived, Fischer learned an approach to cooking that would become the rage.”They were buying whole animals, whole tuna, sourcing locally. We did our own cheeses – that was unheard of. There were only a handful of operators who did that,” said Fischer, who started at Cafe Allegro in 1990. “I got a background of this is how you do it. Buying large boxes of shit from Sysco – that was alien to me.”Fischer moved to Aspen in 1991, for the proverbial winter of skiing. Working at the Caribou Club, he learned about ordering boxes of anything, with no thought to seasonality or locality. “The philosophy was, You can get anything, any time of year, if you thrown enough money at it,” he said. “We can get anything and get it here overnight and cook it for you. That doesn’t make it necessarily good, but that was the cachet attached to the Caribou Club. It all seemed normal at the time to a little kid from the backwater of Pennsylvania.”One of the benefits at the Caribou was being sent, by the late owner Harley Baldwin, to spend offseasons in kitchens from San Francisco to New York. Fischer took turns at Table 29 in Napa, Stars in San Francisco, and Le Cirque and Mesa Grill in New York City. “Spending time in those kitchens helped define me as a cook,” he said. “To be able to look outside your own kitchen is important, especially if you want to grow.”The defining experience, however, came after Fischer left Aspen and settled in at San Francisco’s Fog City Diner. Fischer calls it “my food-turning moment.””I worked with a woman, Cindy Pawlcyn, and it was a completely different approach to it all,” he continued. “It was ingredient-driven, food-driven. I probably learned more from her in 12 months than I could have learned anywhere else in a lifetime.”California’s busyness didn’t appeal to Fischer, so he eventually returned to the valley. Upon his return, in November 1997, he drove down Main Street in Carbondale and saw a vacant building that had housed a B&B. When he expressed interest in leasing the space, he said, “People asked, You’re not going to do the same thing there, are you?”In fact, Fischer was going to try something that had essentially never been done, at least not in the Colorado Rockies. Six89 – the name was taken from the street address – was built on the principles Fischer had learned at Cafe Allegro and Fog City, and that were just taking hold in the late ’90s in America’s progressive food capitals: use what’s available within a couple hours’ drive from your kitchen. That meant not only opening a restaurant, but also creating local food chains; and because it was a novel concept, it also meant convincing regional growers to raise the crops he wanted, and deliver them to his door.”I knew it would be a challenge. Seasonal is easy; local is harder,” Fischer said. “In 1998, there were a few people growing locally in Paonia, a number of farmers markets, ridiculously smaller compared to what they are now. You go into this spiel where you think a farmer’s going to be thrilled to grow something for you, drive it over to you.”Over time, Six89 built those supply chains. The menu rotates constantly, based on what is being hauled over McClure Pass from Delta County. In the warmer months, Fischer’s dishes are filled with Colorado greens, fruits and roots; even in winter, a diner can find local beef sausage and a barbecue sauce made of local preserved peaches. The relationships with regional farmers and ranchers have not only given Fischer his raw materials, but also inspiration.”There’s an appreciation of the effort that goes into making this happen: You think your life is hard? That farmer’s life is even more so,” he said. “It fosters a certain respect: This cauliflower is gorgeous; this pig gave his life – I better make this dish perfect. It makes it more precious, or meaningful. It makes the leap from a commodity to something more meaningful.”In 2002, Fischer’s wife, Lari Goode – whom Fischer gives the credit for making his restaurants work on the business side – told Fischer that she had taken over the Palomino Grill lease. “So, what are you going to do with it?” she asked.His answer – Thai food – was based on the facts that Goode’s favorite cuisine was Thai, that Fischer had been reading a book on Thai cooking, and that Thai restaurants were basically absent from the Western slope. And it was another challenge.”The basic approach to Thai food is that you buy a bunch of cans and open them up,” Fischer said. “We figured if we took a different approach – make our own curries – we might be well-received.” They have been: While Phat Thai hasn’t gotten the national love that Six89 has, many local diners would have a hard time picking between Phat Thai’s Kaeng Kiew Wan (a spicy green curry with chicken and Japanese eggplant) and Six89’s pomegranate braised Colorado lamb shank.Noticeably left out of the fun is that poor town at the top of the Roaring Fork Valley. Fischer has had his eye on Aspen, and came pretty close to a deal at the Dancing Bear development (where the French-style brasserie Brexi is located). “But because of some unfortunate incidents – like the economy tanking – it didn’t happen,” Fischer said. “It’s got to make economic sense. It’s time and price. We’ll see.”And maybe Aspen just doesn’t need what Fischer has to give – or at least not as urgently as Carbondale and Glenwood. While a Phat Thai, Six89 or the Pullman would most likely work in Aspen, and Fischer would be given a hero’s welcome, they wouldn’t have that transforming effect. Aspen hardly needs more amenities to tout in real estate ads.”That Six89 could define Carbondale is shocking to me. I was just looking for a place to cook that was close to home,” Fischer said. “If real estate agents can use it as a selling point, I guess we’ve done something good.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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