Living La Vida La Co
September 7, 2005
For locally iconic restaurateur Nick Lebby, the business side of running a popular eatery has always been secondary to lifestyle and personal satisfaction. When La Cocina employees opted to ski a big powder day instead of going to work, he bowed to the will of the people and stopped serving lunch. That way, neither he nor his workers had to face such choices. Every offseason, Lebby would close the restaurant’s doors for a month or more, giving his workers and his family some much-needed time off, regardless of the lamentations of his faithful customers.Now those same faithful customers are showing up in droves, some of them weeping and bemoaning the impending loss of their favorite Aspen restaurant. Inconsolable patrons repeat long-standing requests for favorite recipes while adults recount escapades from when they were children, pulling pranks that drew gales of laughter from nearby tables.It’s a bittersweet time at the venerable New Mexican restaurant at 308 E. Hopkins Ave., which will close its doors for the last time Sept. 18. The property is being sold to another longtime local restaurateur, Walt Harris, owner of Syzygy, who is expected to run a restaurant at that location. But it won’t be “La Co,” as it is popularly known.Next Sunday, Nick and Sarah Lebby, co-founders, co-owners and co-legends among their fans, will say farewell to the place that has been a part of their lives, and the lives of their three children, for 33 years.
Sitting down for a “swan song” interview with The Aspen Times, the Lebbys were fairly matter-of-fact about the big change. Daughter Erin confessed she isn’t quite sure what she will do with herself at first. Erin has been helping her mother in the kitchen for the past 12 years; another daughter, Nicole, works the front of the house at a variety of tasks. Nick and Sarah’s son, Josh, is a woodworker on the Front Range.Nick and Sarah, however, looked a little relieved that the end is finally coming, although that relief was tinged with sadness. The Lebbys will miss the forum for friendship that started when Nick decided to replicate his mother’s cooking for a local clientele.Originally from the area around Albuquerque, N.M., Nick opened La Co in 1972, after spending some time working various restaurant jobs and ski bumming around Aspen.A Latina woman who worked for Nick’s mom had taught Sarah how to prepare a host of traditional dishes in the family kitchen. “Consequently, we named it ‘The Kitchen,’ but in Spanish rather than English,” Sarah said.Nick and Sarah met when she was a waitress at the old Epicure (at the corner of Mill and Main where the Cantina now stands) on a break from college in New Hampshire.”This gorgeous guy would come in every day for chili, a chocolate shake and a Green River soda pop,” Sarah recalled. She fell for him immediately, but “it took me a long time to get him. I kept having to come back every year,” working at various restaurants over the summers.She finally dropped out of college in her senior year, moved permanently to Aspen and married Nick.The couple initially rented a space in the location where La Co still stands today; it wasn’t even half the size of the current structure. Nick, thinking they might have to move the restaurant at some point, bought the adjacent small Victorian.Within a few years, Nick arranged a trade with the owner of the La Cocina property. They swapped land and buildings, and the Lebby family suddenly had one of the few businesses in Aspen that owned its own building and thus was immune to the whims of Aspen’s real estate market, which already was showing signs of explosive inflation.
“It was just lucky,” said Nick with characteristic humility, adding that he made the deal because he had no interest in building a restaurant, a time-consuming proposition that undoubtedly would have infringed on skiing and other personal priorities.”I ended up trading,” he said, “so I wouldn’t have to interfere with my lifestyle.”La Co started out serving lunch and dinner, but “one powder day, I was the only one who showed up to work for lunch,” Nick recalled. So that was it for lunch – it has been a dinner-only establishment ever since.As for breakfast, that never was even a consideration.”We decided that lifestyle was more important” than money, Nick remarked.Recipe for successIn ’73 or ’74 (neither Nick nor Sarah can recall), while they were still renting the space, the Lebbys built the first addition to the small original building. In the original, a small bar stood where the waiting room is now; tables were where the bar is. The addition was the front part of the current dining room, which allowed them to move the tables and relocate the bar to its current position.In about 1980, they built the back half of the current dining area, as well as the patio on the west side of the structure. They also started the tradition of maintaining riotous flower arrangements, which are carefully tended by Sarah.The restaurant’s staff has been as loyal as its customers, the Lebbys stressed. Chef Boyd Billings (son of the late Dean Billings) has worked at La Co for nearly 30 years. Another chef, Fernando Leal, has been with them for 20 years or so. Many others have “at least 10 years,” said Erin.
When asked to reveal their secret for keeping workers so long, especially in a market notorious for shifting loyalties and staff desertions, Nick said simply, “We were able to attract great people, loyal people. It’s more like a family than anything.”And, Sarah added, “Longevity [has] been the key to our consistency.”Nick was quick to note that “Sarah is the artist back there” in the kitchen. She’s on the job every day, checking ingredients for freshness, dishes for flavor and adherence to the recipes, and preparing all of the desserts.”Restaurant work has a lot to do with things you never see” as a customer, Nick continued. In other words, La Cocina’s success has had as much to do with Sarah’s exacting standards in the kitchen as it has with Nick’s famously friendly greetings as customers enter the front door.There is also the good humor with which regulars face Nick’s inevitable assurance that a table will be “ready in just five minutes,” and the equally inevitable fact that the customer will likely be waiting in the front lounge, sipping on a margarita, 20 minutes later.Not too long ago, the Lebbys added outside tables along the front sidewalk, at the suggestion of Aspen native Ali Crum (daughter of Tom and Cathy Crum), who started working at La Co while she was in high school. Sarah said this week that the front tables have grown in popularity to the point where they are a normal part of the business, rather than a commercial afterthought.In recent years, the Lebbys have further acknowledged the competitive nature of running a restaurant in Aspen by offering deals, such as the current “La Co Tacos” on Thursdays or the “Burger in the Bar” on Mondays.”I don’t know how they do it,” Sarah remarked of her kitchen staff’s seemingly magical ability to crank out 80 to 120 burgers from a kitchen that doesn’t have an actual burger grill.
As the restaurant has evolved and grown, physically as well as in its customer service, a constant leveling presence has been Nick, whose open, friendly manner is legendary.”It’s all Nick,” Sarah said emphatically.”It’s about bringing brightness into people’s lives in small ways,” Erin said of the restaurant’s success and place in customers’ hearts.”We wanted to make this, like, a place where you’re home for dinner … a fun, friendly oasis in a world of indifference. Kind of a shelter out of the storm of life,” Nick agreed.All three expressed wonderment at the reaction of their customers to the announcement that La Co would close for good this year.”The response of the community and our customers has really been overwhelming and has touched us,” said Sarah. “I never realized, I guess, that people loved us so much.”Erin, though, said she wasn’t surprised, because she always knew how people felt about her parents.”It’s who they are. What they give was not unusual to them,” she commented. “It meant something” to the many people who “were touched over the years by La Co.”One example of that community feeling came unexpectedly, on Sept. 7, when the Lebbys were named honorary members of the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department by members of the department who were dining at La Co. The Lebbys join a select group of a little more than a dozen locals so honored throughout the years.
“It’s been a great adventure,” said Nick one day this week, after returning from an early-morning road-bike ride up to the Benedict Monastery in Old Snowmass. “I love what I do. I’ve been a very fortunate person. I wouldn’t have traded my life for anybody’s.”So what will they do with all their spare time?”Basically, the same thing I’ve always done,” said Nick with a grin – ski, ride his bicycle, hike the hills, that sort of thing, and fly to Hawaii in the late autumn or early winter.Sarah is thinking about putting out a cookbook – something customers have been badgering her about for years.Erin said she likely will leave town for a while to gather her thoughts and decide what to do next in her life. A language major in college, she speaks Japanese and French, and may make some use of that ability.And Nicole, who was not present during the interview, has a teaching degree, which her family thinks she may now put to use.The restaurant will open early each day of its final weekend, Sept. 16 to 18, for a farewell bash that will include live music and, undoubtedly, considerable reminiscing, some tears and a lot of farewell hugs.John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org