No break in breakfast for Munoz in El Jebel
In the Old West the fastest hands were also the most revered. And in a small restaurant in El Jebel, not much has changed.The guns have been exchanged for spatulas, but the spectacle is just the same – in this case it’s the precise, speedy hands of the short-order cook at work.On a chilly October morning the windows of Breakfast in America, a fast-paced breakfast joint, were already beginning to fog. In the resort centers, it’s offseason, but don’t tell that to the clientele here. These are working men, laborers, who appreciate the importance of hard work and a good breakfast in your belly. Wool shirts, hunting caps and hard faces line the bar seats. This is not Aspen’s morning-manicured crowd. Around here, it’s big breakfasts for big boys (and girls).
In charge of keeping stomachs full and plates moving is Miguel Munoz, the cook. He’s one of three on the staff, but on weekdays like today, he’s all alone. At his station there are three platforms for him to tend: a grill, two open burners and a cauldron. On a typical morning Munoz will dodge and dance between them on his way to making up to 300 breakfasts.In the summer, the restaurant offers patio seating. But the joint comes into its own on cold days, when the small interior is crammed full and the wait forces the line outside.Inside, the bar seating is arranged so everyone faces the cooking station. It’s a theater of sorts, and Munoz puts on a hell of a show.He’s probably no faster than most short-order cooks, but to see such a performance up close is a rarity. Sometimes he looks like a virtuoso pianist, his hands fluttering easily across the platforms. Other times, he’s a conjurer, and a flame will shoot up with the flick of his hand. As he splashes a perfectly symmetrical egg yolk onto the grill with one hand, his other hand almost absentmindedly flips hash browns on the verge of being burnt.”I come just to watch him,” regular customer Judy Marbach said between bites of an omelet. “You get great food and entertainment. And it’s for a great price. It’s so expensive to live here you have to know how to wheel and deal.”
Breakfast in America is a throwback. Most of the menu, including the jams, hash browns and beef cuts, are prepared on site. Much of the clientele are regulars, around whom quirky traditions have developed, such as pouring your own coffee and getting your own silverware. If you aren’t a local, it’s obvious right away – you’re the one left sitting with the empty cup and without any idea how to eat your breakfast burrito.”People see the cooks putting on the show,” owner Dan Weis said. “But there’s a huge amount of prep work that they do, too. All our ingredients come through the back in sacks and crates, and we go from there. We’re last of a dying breed, I guess.”The rustic, cowboy feel of the restaurant is deceiving, however. The orders are taken on an electronic Palm Pilot and relayed directly to the cook. It’s nanotechnology in a nanosecond, and the orders can come flying in. And with the Palm Pilot came other technology, such as a grill that maintains temperature to a tenth of a degree, that also made cooking faster.It’s tough to get Munoz to talk – he’s just too busy – but in a rare break between orders he takes a deep breath, wipes his hands on his apron and steps outside.
“At first I was a little worried about the Palm Pilot. I mean, we already were getting so many orders in,” Munoz said. “But I think I’ve got the hang of it. I hardly ever fall behind.”Munoz honed his skills in Mexico, serving burgers and burritos to tourists in Cancun. He’s been in Colorado for seven years, in which time he’s learned English and how to cook to American tastes. After he finishes his morning shift at Breakfast in America he goes straight to another job at a pizzeria in Glenwood Springs. He said cooking is an “easy job,” at least compared to alternatives available to him such as construction work. Does he want to stay at Breakfast in America forever?”I don’t know. There’s a nice boss here, but I don’t think I’ll stay forever. I’ve got other ideas. I’ve been thinking about …”But before he can finish his thought, another order comes up. And he’s back to work.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org