New Little Nell chef starts from scratch
September 29, 2005
Savvy salesmen of prepared foods have probably taken Ryan Hardy off their preferred customer list by now.At his last job, at the Coach House restaurant in the Harbor View Hotel on Martha’s Vineyard, chef Hardy was approached by a purveyor offering a long list of ready-to-go products: ham, pressed burgers, veggies in a bag. Hardy sampled some french fries, then sent the salesman packing.”They’d have me try stuff, and I’d say, ‘no thank you,'” said Hardy. “They were shocked that I made ham, french fries, everything by hand. They’d say, ‘You’re a hotel; why do you want to make your own french fries?'”
It’s a good question. French fries – and preserves, sausages, vinegars and chocolates – are, for a chef, more easily ordered than made. But for Hardy, there are several good reasons that outweigh the convenience of placing an order and waiting for delivery. For one, there is taste: “There’s no preservative in the world that can substitute for good flavor,” said Hardy. Then there is nutrition: The fresher and less processed the food is, the more healthful. And perhaps of most significance is Hardy’s interest in actually making the food, not just preparing and serving it. He has the overwhelming passion for food that marks the true fanatic. Sitting at the bar in The Little Nell hotel, where he took over as executive chef last month, the 30-year-old Hardy talks about 2 a.m. dinners in New York City, New England’s littleneck clams (“just a thing to behold,” he gushes), and his full appreciation for Basalt’s ultra-lowbrow Taqueria El Nopal. Speaking rapid-fire words, and giving every indication that he could talk food for days, Hardy gets to what might be his favorite of gastronomic topics: making food from scratch with his own two hands (and those of his staff).”If I can make everything in the kitchen by hand, go the extra step for everything, I’ll do it,” said Hardy. That hands-on emphasis means not only extra time in The Little Nell’s amazingly spacious kitchen, but also journeys into the field. Over six weeks in his recent return to Aspen, Hardy has developed relationships with a rabbit farmer in Delta, growers from the Roaring Fork Valley to Palisade, and potential local sources for chickens and lambs. He bought an entire grass-fed Angus cow from a Carbondale cattleman. He has gone foraging for chanterelle mushrooms in the forests around Aspen, and has been on a tasting tour of Colorado wines (which he finds perfectly satisfactory to their modest purpose). He is heartbroken that the timing of his arrival couldn’t be worse for making cheese from local milk, but it is foremost on his to-do list.
In college – two years at Cincinnati’s Xavier University and two at the University of Kentucky in his hometown of Lexington – Hardy couldn’t have been farther from the kitchen. He studied accounting. How he opted for a business-oriented major says something about why Hardy now prefers handcrafting his food to ordering it ready-made. Hardy chose the business track after getting a C in a beginning accounting class. “It was the first class that challenged me,” he said.But accounting didn’t suit his creative mind, or his free spirit. “I was the only one in Birkenstocks, tie-dyes and long hair,” he said. “Everyone around me was in business suits. That was a big flashing alarm.”On the day he graduated, Hardy drove west from Kentucky, till he hit water. In Washington state, he tried his hand at forestry, but found the great outdoors – at least, the prospect of working in it as a government employee – nearly as confining as his accounting studies. So it was time to turn to a real passion, cooking. So he and his now wife, Cathy Rusnak, moved to San Francisco, where Hardy enrolled in the California Culinary Academy. After seven months Hardy was hooked on food, but not on the school, which focused more on budgets, management and the most elementary kitchen skills.”I said, ‘Wait a minute. We’re studying accounting again – and I’m paying twice as much as I was in college for it.’ Culinary school is wonderful for some people, but it’s the basics – knife skills, how to cut a filet – I knew how to do that already,” he explained.After his first restaurant job, working the 650-degree wood-fire oven at the Eastern & Oriental Trading Company in downtown San Francisco, Hardy went for broke. He showed up unannounced at Rubicon, the restaurant and wine hot spot operated by Larry Stone, considered the grandfather of American sommeliers. Hardy says it was dumb fortune that got him the job (“They happened to need someone right then, and I showed up right then”), but getting a foot in the door was only a fraction of the battle.”The competition was just fierce,” he said. “You’re either going to dive in with both feet or you’re going to die. There are people dropping résumés off at the door all day long. I thought I would get fired every day for the first three months.”Hardy dove in at Rubicon, and discovered what remains his supreme culinary passion: cheese. Hardy read books on cheese production, and sampled virtually every cheese he could get his mouth on. And when he discovered that France had as many cheesemakers as vintners, but even the food capital of San Francisco couldn’t claim a single shop that specialized in cheese, he saw a niche for himself.”There was nobody in this country who knew anything about selling cheese,” said Hardy. “So I decided to make it a signature of my repertoire.”In 1999, Hardy accepted a job at Renaissance, Charles Dale’s restaurant that had brought dining in Aspen to a new level in the ’90s. Technically, his job was butcher (“I didn’t touch any vegetables, just fish and meat.”), but the narrow job description didn’t halt his devotion to cheese. Hardy talked Dale into letting him steward a small cheese program, and he developed his skills in ordering and aging cheeses, and pairing them with wine.Hardy was named Renaissance’s sous chef after a year. And when Dale opened a second restaurant, Rustique, in 2000, Hardy was made executive chef.It was an even more ideal fit than Renaissance had been. Renaissance’s cuisine, says Hardy, was too high-end to do it all by hand. But Rustique’s menu was different, a take on traditional rustic French food. Hardy, all of 25 at the time, found himself in restaurant heaven, heading a kitchen that made its own pasta, pâtés, bread and ricotta cheese. “We even tried making our own mustard. But it all turned out too spicy. So spicy,” he said.
After a few years at Rustique, Hardy headed farther into the American Southwest, taking a one-year position with Mark Miller’s Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe. Hardy picked up another strand of wisdom in Santa Fe that has become part of his cooking philosophy: a belief in regional cuisine and local ingredients. After a year in the desert, Hardy took a sharp turn and landed on Martha’s Vineyard, where the Coach House presented a perfect opportunity to practice his latest lessons. It wasn’t green chiles and enchiladas, but a chance to immerse himself in the ingredients and styles of another region.”The Coach House,” said Hardy, “didn’t have a lot of direction. It was just there.” Typically, the picturesque hotel restaurant drafted chefs from New York, who were hungry to bring their cosmopolitan recipes with them. Hardy, though, brought a different approach.
“Dark woods, brass, looking out over the ocean, people digging clams right out the window – it was obvious to me that it was a New England brasserie. I said, ‘Let’s take all this fresh fish right out of the water and put it on a plate.’ Very simple. I embraced New England, in terms of food.” Hardy also furthered his work with artisanal cheeses.The Little Nell’s Montagna restaurant, most recently under chef Paul Wade, had earned its share of acclaim, including a Mobile four-star ranking this year. But Hardy didn’t hesitate to do a soup-to-nuts overhaul. In less than two months, he has redone all of The Little Nell menus: breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, room service and tapas in the bar.”I knew what I wanted to do here,” he explained. “I knew I wanted the menus to be very focused on Colorado food.” The dinner menu includes Colorado lamb shoulder and Paonia rabbit; dishes are prepared with Palisade apples and peaches and local greens, tomatoes and squash. “And that’s just one-hundreth of what I want to do,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of shipping in food.”Hardy happily includes himself on the bandwagon of chefs exalting local ingredients. “This country is beginning to regionalize in the last 10 years only,” he continued. “We’ve finally realized it’s OK to cook New Orleans food in New Orleans, or put chiles on everything in Santa Fe. That’s what they do all through Europe, and that’s what they’ve been doing for hundreds of years. I embrace the fact that we live here because of the mountains, the rivers, the farms that are downvalley, and you mold those into the food you create.”
There is one other reason, beyond taste and physical nutrition, behind Hardy’s desire to have a hand in making his food. At his old Kentucky home, the chores included planting a garden, picking the cucumbers and tomatoes. “It was a pain in the ass, but it was one of the biggest influences on my career,” he said. “It taught me to love food, to love what good food is.”My basic philosophy is, food is family. You create a family atmosphere. It’s about understanding that food has to come from somewhere; it has to be made with love. It has to be not just taste-satisfying, but soul-satisfying.”Like Charles Foster Kane with his rosebud sled, Hardy uses food as a connection to his childhood, his family. It may not be the same recipes he was used to in Kentucky, but in a soup made of Colorado-raised lamb, in a littleneck clam eaten off the half-shell on the Massachusetts coast, or in Taqueria El Nopal’s carne asada, he finds that same sense of rootedness. “I want that food from my childhood,” he said, “that homemade touch.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com