New flavors, new chef at Aspen’s Gusto
December 18, 2007
Editors note: Inside Business, published Tuesdays in The Aspen Times, recently sat down with Elizabeth Plotke, co-owner of Gusto Ristorante and Campo De Fiori in Aspen. Plotke and her husband, Luigi Giordani, recently hired Jorma Cox as the new executive chef for all of their restaurants, which include two other Campos, one in Denver and the other in Vail. Gustos menu has been completely revamped as a result of Coxs work.Question: How long have you been in Aspen?Answer: I moved here 15 years ago. I moved here with my husband and we waited tables at Farfalla, which was the hottest restaurant in town. I was the only waitress, the token girl. When we moved here we had $200 to our name. We made a ton of money. We quit our careers to move here and have a little bit of fun.Q: What prompted you to become restaurateurs?A: We found this space where Campo was, which was sitting empty. We noticed they were going to open a bagel shop but it fell through. We saved a chunk of money and signed a lease there and opened Campo 13 years ago. We did it with very little money. I remember waiting tables while we were building it. It took three or four months to build and saving every penny. We didnt have bathrooms, there was no bar. We saved more money and were able to expand. We did everything by hand. I built the tables with my sister.Then we opened a couple more restaurants over a period of some years. We went to Vail and then we opened a restaurant in Denver. That really made us realize that we wanted to focus our energy in the mountains. People move here because of the lifestyle.Q: When did you open Gusto?A: Farfalla had not been doing well for a while so we made an offer on the space. We opened in 2001, right after Sept. 11. We did extremely well. We were really busy. I think at Campo we stayed steady. Nothing increased that year.Q: What was the original idea?A: The initial concept was contemporary Italian. The way I explain it is its Italian food but the ingredients are pulled from other parts of the world.Q: Why change the concept now?A: The sales were great. Everything was great. The numbers were really good before.Its not about making a living. I need to feel extremely proud of my product. I feel what happened with this restaurant was that it was thought of as a really popular lunch restaurant, which it is. But people didnt see the difference between our lunch and dinner menu. So I wanted to create a totally different energy for dinner, different food for dinner a little more sophisticated but approachable because dining should be comfortable and fun.We turned the oven down to 400 degrees and we roast meat and fish and baked pastas and really fun stuff. We closed the restaurant for a week and did intensive training with the staff. We changed the look a little with tablecloths and crystal glassware and some cool photography and lighting some really basic things that add a slightly sophisticated feeling.Over the 13 years in business we have so many signature dishes and I am the person who likes to change things. For years I would fight with people and say we have to change this. There is so much good food out there. We cant get stuck. Its so boring to stay the same.Q: How has the menu changed?A: Everything is fresh. That wasnt the case before. I feel like its up six steps in ingredients. The dishes are so much better. Its a totally different menu. The lunch menu is 70 percent different.Q: How about the prices?A: They havent changed much. Where you are going to see the price difference is the entrees; the lamb is $40 but it is from a local farm. Its a family that grows lamb only for us. I dont think its gone up that much.Q: Havent your costs gone up as a result?A: The costs dont change that much because when you do your menu fresh on a daily basis there is no waste. Sometimes in the restaurant business, waste is added into the cost of the food. But because Jorma does it all the time and if he runs out of something, its not on the menu that day and there is no waste.Q: How did you find your new chef?A: Jorma is so talented and so excited that for me now I am excited. He had come by and I had heard about him because he worked in this really famous restaurant in Italy and he ended up coming to work for us in our Denver restaurant for a while. He is so talented that I felt he shouldnt be in one restaurant so he is now our executive chef for the whole company and oversees the operations. But for the next six months he is going to focus 95 percent of the energy at Gusto. Jorma is an ingredient-based chef. He does a lot with local farms. All the meats are natural. Its really cool.Q: Were you ever concerned about competing with yourself when you opened Gusto?A: I was never concerned. People would say how can you open another Italian restaurant? When we did it, it was very intentional. The energy is different. Campos food is more rustic, the look is more rustic. Campo has soul inside. That restaurant was done with our blood. This is more sleek, more modern. They are not the same. The food is different. Its worked.Q: How quickly did you turn a profit at Gusto?A: We put some serious investment into Gusto. It took us just over two years to pay off the investment, close to $1 million. The building was a total disaster. All new plumbing, new electric, new septic. But cosmetically, we spent a lot of money too. Everything was new.I wasnt worried. I thought it would go. At that point, we had a lot of experience and I feel like you open a business to succeed.Q: What do you want Gusto to be now that its grown up?A: During tourist time, there are a few top spots in town and you just want to make sure you are one of those top spots. People want to come and see you one of the nights they are in town. If they make you one of the places they want to go, you are in good shape.Q: What are the challenges in doing business here?A: Rents are getting out of control. To purchase is impossible at this point. Its getting more difficult for employees to find housing. Its just a joke. That is the big issue.Q: How have you combated that?A: I think the people who work in restaurants can make good money and if you take good care of them, you end up getting good people but its not easy. When I brought Jorma in and some of the crew in, I personally went and looked at housing for them. I feel like in the last three years its been out of control. When I started looking at rentals for people, I was shocked at what you can get in Aspen.Q:What are the differences in doing business in Vail and Aspen?A: Vail has a very intense offseason. This is a year-round local community here. Even in offseason, this place can be full. The locals here are really supportive. Q: So, what restaurants do you like to eat at?A: I like to eat at Matsuhisa a lot. I think the chef at the Little Nell is a really talented chef. I think Lu Lu Wilson and Cache Cache do a really good job.Q: Are you an member of ACRA? If so, why?A: Yes. All of the employees get ski passes. They can have a discount at the gym. Its a nice incentive for them. Its just being part of the community. We are on their website.Q: What are your thoughts on the business climate here?A: I think its constantly changing. I remember waiting tables here and I dont know if I was the kind of waitress that got people to go crazy on things but I would walk with $500. I was always told that I walked with $300 more than everyone else. My husband would walk with $200. I think people come here to spend money. The clientele might be different but they still come here to let loose, have a good bottle of wine, eat good food.Q: How has the local government been to your business?A: The local government has been actually good to us. When I first opened Campo I was told how hard the government was and I feel like they were very good to us. When I would do a remodel, everyone was really cool. They saw that we were young, we were hungry and totally earnest.