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Soup’s on in Aspen

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times
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ASPEN – The world’s flavors are simmering at a new Aspen lunch spot, where an unlikely duo of restaurateurs are ladling up homemade soup to a growing legion of fans.

The Little Soup Shop opened its doors Dec. 20 in a tucked-away spot at the corner of Mill Street and Hyman Avenue. Word-of-mouth and a sandwich-board sign at the top of the stairs are guiding diners to a subgrade courtyard and the shop’s front door. Once they’re inside, the aroma does the rest.

Six days a week, adventure travel writer/soup chef Dez Bartelt and her husband, extreme skier Garret Bartelt, serve up a modest selection of all-organic sandwiches, salads and the main attraction – soups inspired by Dez’s world travels.

There are four soups daily: the chef’s selection, which changes daily; caramelized shallot with apple-smoked Gruyere, a menu mainstay given its popularity; and two varieties that change with the day of the week. On Friday, the chef’s soup was smoked salmon corn chowder, garnished with baby arugula and bits of maple-syrup-drizzled bacon; offered every Friday are green lentil with apple brown butter and roasted poblano cheddar.

Dez has no trouble providing plenty of variety. She has 127 soup recipes, preparing four of them daily from scratch in a nearby commercial kitchen. Work begins long before daybreak. The plan was to open the shop from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., but at least two of the four pots of soup are typically gone by early afternoon, so the shop closes up at 4 p.m. instead.

Whatever is left over, Dez said, is often distributed to the folks at nearby business establishments – Soup Shop regulars.

“They come in every day. For me, it’s a way of giving back, saying ‘thank you,'” she said.

It has been a long journey for Dez, this soup business, and it’s not over yet, as there are a few places on the planet she has yet to visit.

She was 17 years old when she went abroad for the first time, on a mountain-climbing trip to Italy that took an unexpected detour into the embrace of a local family.

“I had absolutely zero interest in cooking. I couldn’t boil water,” she said.

But members of an extended Italian family gathering to cook a meal changed everything.

“I fell in love with the culture behind the food and how it brought people together,” Dez said.

Her subsequent travels have taken her to nearly every country around the world, where sampling the cuisine and learning to prepare regional dishes trumps the sightseeing. That doesn’t mean, though, that she feels the need to re-create every one of her culinary experiences – rat on a stick, cooked over an open flame in the West African country of Burkina Faso, for example.

“I promise that won’t be on the menu,” she said.

The rat was relatively tasteless, Dez reported. She couldn’t say the same of fermented yak balls in Mongolia (yes, she means testicles).

The constant in her travels was soup. It’s a comfort food embraced around the world, even in the warmest climates, she reports. For some, it’s a necessity born out of poverty, but that doesn’t mean it’s not tasty.

“Every single one of my recipes come from those experiences,” Dez said.

If soup gives comfort, Dez’s soups go the extra mile. Some of the proceeds from the business, along with what’s collected in the tip jar go to a couple of projects she founded in Burkina Faso, she said. One helps feed children; she found them begging for food in the impoverished country. The other is devoted to abolishing the practice of genital mutilation of women there.

The Bartelts settled in Aspen last fall (they also have a home in Argentina) after selling a hotel they owned and operated in Puerto Rico. Married 14 years, they met in Aspen and Garret, who formerly made the town his home base, was keen on returning.

Despite travel books yet to be written, Dez, who declares herself a workaholic, said she needed something more to keep her busy. A friend suggested the town could use a good soup place and The Little Soup Shop came to life.

Little, it is. There are six tables and chairs for 16 in the cozy space. On a snowy day, a spot at a table can be hard to come by during the noon hour, but customers collect soup to go in 8- and 12-ounce containers (everything is compostable, right down to the spoons, Dez notes).

Sit-down diners can order a flight of soup – a sample of each variety of the day ladled into four small bowls, lined up on a long, narrow platter.

On a typical day, Dez is busy with food prep while Garret mans the counter; he also handles the books for the business.

The man ladling the soup has his own claim to fame – one of the most spectacular ski crashes of all time. Garret launched into a run at the 1992 World Extreme Skiing Championships in Valdez, Alaska, caught a ski tip shortly after he began his descent of an 800-foot vertical drop and cartwheeled to the bottom, surviving with cuts, lacerations and a compound fracture of his left leg.

Google his name and the spectacular, horrifying footage, uploaded to YouTube, pops up at the top of the list.

Garret continued to ski competitively after he recovered but is a recreational skier these days, hitting the slopes when he can.

“I still ski pretty hard,” he said, grinning.

The shop, Dez said, is here to stay. She has plans to switch from the hearty soups of winter to lighter fare, influenced by travels to places like Thailand and Greece, come summer.

And, there’s a chance her soups will see greater distribution than what can be accomplished from The Little Soup Shop. She has been approached about selling her creations more broadly, which means mass production on some level, but Dez said she’s adamant about adhering to her standards. That means no preservatives and figuring out how to produce soup with a relatively short expiration date.

“Right now, that’s the big negotiation – how to do it without chemicals,” she said.

janet@aspentimes.com


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