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Seeing the kitchen as a studio at Anderson Ranch Cafe

At Snowmass Village arts campus cafe, culinary team thinks global, acts local

Anderson Ranch Cafe chef Daniel Leon keeps an eye on the kitchen after the first lunch service of the summer season on Monday, June 7, 2021.
Kaya Williams/The Snowmass Sun

Anderson Ranch Arts Center’s new culinary team takes the “think global, act local” adage to heart.

Rotating menus at the on-campus cafe might feature flavors from Oaxaca, where Food and Beverage Director Rob Ittner spent several months during the pandemic. Diners may taste dishes with Japanese influences (chef Daniel Leon has an extensive background in the cuisine) or they might nosh Venezuelan bites inspired by Leon’s hispanic roots.

The international artist community that flocks to the Snowmass Village arts campus each summer will see their own homes reflected in the menu, too.



Leon aims to channel “some of the flavors that remind us of where we come from,” he said in a June 7 joint interview with Ittner at the cafe.

It’s a different approach than the one Ittner took for nearly two decades at Rustique, his classic country French restaurant where he experimented some but largely remained in one culinary lane; he branched out more with the unbounded-by-one-cuisine Cooking School of Aspen, which he sold in 2018 along with Rustique and event venue The Cottage.



“Because of the nature of the ranch being a place where art and creativity is abundant, and we have a captive audience for a week or two weeks at a time, we don’t run the same menu every day,” Ittner said. “So we have to have flexibility with new items all the time, which leads us to not being bound by one type of cuisine.”

About that “act local” component: Leon is already in talks with a number of Roaring Fork Valley vendors and farmers to source fresh, seasonal ingredients. After the restaurant industry was upended by COVID-19 (and Leon’s previous position along with it), he spent time with the farm-trade organization World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms learning more about the agricultural angle of the industry.

“We’re trying to create some fresh flavors, we’re trying to cook a lot with the seasons,” Leon said. “Hopefully in the future, we utilize the economy around this area and work with farms and tap into some of the ingredients that grow here because I think this valley’s really beautiful.”

Anderson Ranch Cafe sous chef and valley local Josh Applegate helped Leon with the local sourcing and facilitated connections, Leon said.

Preparing the cafe for a June 6 opening day has been an iterative process over the past few weeks as Ittner and Leon fine-tuned systems (both run a tight ship; Leon is particularly proud of a clean, orderly kitchen) and tested recipes. Leon considers Ittner a teacher with the wisdom of several decades on the local food scene; Ittner said he sees in Leon “a star that’s going to explode.”

They dished up their first meal for students and staff Sunday night but shifted the public reopening to Monday. And recipe trials will continue into the summer. Ittner said about 60% of what they create will become part of a regular rotation on the menu, while the other 40% will be more experimental. There will always be vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options, with a focus on healthy, fresh ingredients.

Itner and Leon are a collaborative team at the cafe, working in tandem to usher in an art-minded vision for the cafe that serves so many creatives visiting campus for workshops, residencies, classes and events.

“If I go into some of these studios, you kind of see how those people are so focused on crafting, creating something new,” Leon said. “I’ve worked in restaurants since I went to culinary school, but there’s a sort of unique perspective here that you can tap into some of the other talent here.”

Ittner hopes the evolution of the cafe this summer means visitors will soon come to campus for the artistry of the food itself, too. He envisions the cafe as both an art museum — a place to showcase the craft honed in the kitchen — as well as a studio where chefs like Leon can experiment and try new recipes and ideas.

Leon and Ittner also envision collaboration with on-campus artists who might create the ceramics on which food is served or woodworking that shapes the ambiance of the cafe.

“As an artist — in the operations and with some of the food stuff — I want someone to appreciate my art,” Ittner said. “I think it’s the same thing that happens in a studio here where you’ve got a teacher that’s imparting this love and passion to their students about what they’re creating, and in this case, our medium is flavor, is taste.”

That concept could extend beyond the core culinary team, according to marketing and communications director Katherine Roberts; opportunities for culinary arts education at the cafe are in the works but are still in very early stages of development, she said.

For Ittner and Leon, it’s a way to broaden the kinds of art that Anderson Ranch is known for.

“I’ve always defined art as something that we experience through our senses that inspires an emotion, whether you listen to it, whether you look at it in a museum or whether you smell it or taste it,” Ittner said. “That’s what art is, and I want to raise the appreciation of our form of art, which is the dining experience.”

Leon agrees.

“The ranch is all about creativity so I think we’re trying to match the food and the ambiance. … When (people) come to the ranch, maybe they’re blown away by — all these people around us are so talented,” Leon said. “I think with me and Rob, we’re trying to create a team where you can be blown away by the food too, or say wow, that’s delicious.”

IF YOU GO…

The Anderson Ranch Cafe opens to the public Monday, June 14. (Until then, it’s only open to students and staff.)

Breakfast is served on weekdays and Saturdays; lunch is served weekdays only; dinner is served on weekdays and Sundays. Grab-and-go items also will be available this summer. Menus change frequently; visit andersonranch.org/our-campus/cafe-menus for the latest offerings.

Reservations are not required; simply walk up to order. Masks are still required on the Anderson Ranch campus but staff are currently working on aligning campus rules with Pitkin County guidelines that allow fully vaccinated people to go mask-free indoors and out, according to Katherine Roberts, director of marketing and communications at the ranch.

kwilliams@aspentimes.com


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