Jim Butchart still applying the elbow grease at Ajax Tavern
ASPEN Most days at lunch-rush time, Jim Butchart spends an hour or so at the grill/fry station flipping patties and dropping potatoes in hot oil, trying to keep up with the demand for burgers and french fries. For numerous reasons, you wont hear the 36-year-old complaining about the heat or the hurry.Butchart isnt exactly making fast food. The station is at the Little Nells Ajax Tavern, so the burgers the Double-Double, modeled after In-n-Outs much-admired creation are made of locally raised, grass-fed beef from Carbondales Milagro Ranch. The fries not the ones that come with the burger, but those ordered a la carte are drizzled with truffle oil and Parmigiano Reggiano.Butchart cant properly be called the fry guy. Most often, hes referred to as chef. When the Little Nell reacquired the Ajax Tavern name the space was originally operated independently, and for the last few years the Nell ran it simply as The Tavern Butchart was hired as executive chef. So while hes available for flipping-and-frying duty as needed, more of his time is spent creating daily specials like the fried-oyster chopped salad featured recently, and overseeing the production of the restaurants signature French bistro-inspired dishes sole meunire, coq au vin, Gruyre fondue as well as the raw bar.The chef is actually pleased to be getting his hands greasy. For the last several years, Butchart was the corporate chef for DP&S, a firm that operated resorts in Jackson Hole and Turks & Caicos. He worked primarily out of the Greenbrier Sporting Club, a private spot in West Virginia where he was executive chef. But the corporate part of his title meant loads of time in airplanes and behind desks or, as Butchart saw it, time outside the kitchen. I enjoy being on the line, cooking, being with the chefs, he said one recent morning, in an interview interrupted by a phone conversation about the incoming provisions order, and the daily pre-service meeting with his staff, where they discussed the days lunch special (chopped salad with fried oysters) and customer feedback (Butchart had accepted a recommendation to switch the macaroon dessert from one big, unwieldy macaroon to three bite-sized pieces.).Mostly, however, the thing that keeps Butchart from bemoaning his grill/fry time is his work ethic. For as long as he can remember, work has been like oxygen. I was the kid walking up and down the neighborhood with a rake or shovel, trying to earn a couple of bucks, said the Cleveland native, who recalls, as a child, seeing his parents open a jewelry store, and the hours that were required.Butcharts early memories of food were not so much the work that went into it, but the family bonding that came out of it. His immediate family was small, but his mother was one of six sisters from a second-generation Lebanese clan. Holidays were huge gatherings, with six aunts, he said. It was such a food-driven gathering. Those are my early memories of food.As soon as he hit his teens, food became more than a family activity. But it didnt become an art, rather, it was a source of income. Butchart launched his burger-and-fries career at a Burger King and went on to jobs at KFC, a wings-only joint, and a golf course caf, where he was a 14-year-old short-order cook. At the University of Toledo, he studied recreational resource management, with an eye toward being a forest ranger (an early ambition shared, coincidentally, by Ryan Hardy, executive chef at the Little Nells other restaurant, Montagna). During college, food was not only a job, but entertainment.It was wanting to please, said Butchart. Whether it was nachos, wings, I wanted to present it well, make sure everyone had a good time. But I didnt take cooking seriously.During an externship as a West Virginia raft guide, Butchart met Kerry, a Cornell-educated yoga instructor, now his wife. When the two finished their schooling, they moved together to Telluride. Arriving on New Years Day 1997, Butcharts first thought was that he needed a job. So his first instinct was to check out the restaurants, and he landed a job as dishwasher and prep cook at the New Sheridan Hotel.Even in his entry-level station, the work ethic was evident. I had nightmares of being in the weeds, dishes piling up. So Id come in early to work, get my station ready, he said (while confessing that his days were devoted to pleasure namely, snowboarding).The chef noticed that seriousness of purpose, and persuaded Butchart to turn his attention to the food itself. Starting as garde-manger keeper of the cold-food station he soon became fascinated with the restaurants unusual take on the steakhouse concept, which included elk and other game.It was so new. I was so fresh and full of it. I could be making mashed potatoes and it would be exciting, said Butchart. And I was at that stage where I was looking for my career. I was starting to see success, and maybe I need to take this seriously.Butchart enrolled in a two-year apprenticeship at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. Being in a team that served up to 2,000 dinners in a night provided a steep learning curve, and Butchart made sure that his education didnt flatten out by taking jobs at the Chatham Club in Savannah, Ga., the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, and the Ford Plantation, also in Savannah. He signaled his seriousness to the restaurant world by taking unpaid stages, from two-to-five days apiece, at such top-level kitchens as the French Laundry and Charlie Trotters.Returning to West Virginia, Butchart opened the Greenbrier Sporting Club. But over his five-year stint, as his business chores expanded, he itched for kitchen time. The more time youre chained to your desk, the less you have with the food, he said. You ask yourself: Is this what I signed up for? I wasnt ready to dive into that more.The Ajax Tavern has reconnected him to food. The lunch program, fueled by the unbeatable, gondola-side location and the outdoor patio, was already strong, and Butchart sees his job as maintenance and fine-tuning. So dinner, which hadnt been served at the spot for several years, is his primary focus. Butchart aims to keep the lunch energy going into the evening, and to keep the restaurant from becoming a special-occasion spot. The 16-oz. ribeye steak, he says, is a good deal at $38, and if people need to be lured in with a lower-price option, the $17 Double-Double pulls double duty, appearing on both the lunch and dinner menus.And theres a good chance the person cooking those patties will be the boss.The grill/fry station thats the heart and soul of the lunch hour. Thats the Double-Double and the truffle fries, said Butchart, noting that the Tavern served 1,500 Double-Doubles in December. If that goes down, were in trouble. So I hunker down there. Im back to burgers and email@example.com
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