St. Regis Aspen guest chef Alex Seidel puts ordinary diners first
ASPEN – As executive chef at Mizuna, Alex Seidel was sure he had hit the heights of Denver’s dining scene. All he had to do was look around the kitchen or read the menu, and he saw the markers of exceptional cuisine: foie gras, truffles, caviar. But over his 4 1/2 years at the Denver landmark, Seidel noticed an undeniable phenomenon: The more esoteric the ingredients and preparations, the less diners seemed to order them. It struck Seidel that for much of his career – which had included training at the Western Culinary Institute in Oregon and working at Sweet Basil in Vail and a private resort in California’s Carmel Valley – he had been trained to creates dishes for other chefs, not the typical diner coming through the door.”I was constantly thinking outside the box, using crazy ingredients. I tried to create a new menu every month that was the next thing, with different ingredients that were difficult to source,” Seidel said of his time at Mizuna. “But some of the best dishes I did as a chef didn’t necessarily sell the most. I did abalone and sold two a night. Chefs like pork belly – that’s all the rage. But the vast majority of the dining public don’t eat like chefs.”In 2007 Seidel put to the test a food philosophy based on simplicity, accessibility and diner-friendliness. Fruition, located near downtown Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood serves what Seidel calls “sophisticated comfort food” – meaning a bavette cut is offered rather than the more expensive beef tenderloin; lobster just recently made its first appearance on the menu (but just a bit of lobster – in a tagliatelle that comes with the pan-roasted grouper); and diners in flip-flops and shorts feel comfortable in the 50-seat restaurant. The focus on ingredients is reflected in Fruition Farm, where Seidel grows veggie and herbs and operates Colorado’s only artisan sheep-cheese facility.”Fruition isn’t all about luxury ingredients,” Seidel, a 38-year-old native of Racine, Wis., who has lived in Colorado for 13 years, said. “I’m trying to offer them something more approachable.”Seidel’s philosophy and efforts were rewarded with a Best New Chef nod from Food & Wine magazine in 2010. Consistent with his populist approach to food, Seidel was not overly impressed with the award itself; his Best New Chef trophy isn’t displayed at Fruition. “The award itself is one a lot of chefs dream about. I never dreamed about it,” Seidel said.More significant than the award was being accepted into what Seidel calls “the Food & Wine family.” Now he can call himself a favored member of that family – Seidel is one of four former Best New Chefs chosen for the launching of the Chefs Club, a unique restaurant concept that will feature four guest chefs each six months. The Chefs Club, whose partners include Food & Wine and Starwood Hotels & Resorts, opened this week at the St. Regis Aspen. The first quartet of guest chefs are George Mendes of Aldea, in Manhattan; James Lewis of Bettola, in Birmingham, Ala.; and Sue Zemanich of Gautreau’s, in New Orleans, along with Seidel. Overseeing the restaurant, and also contributing a portion of the menu, is executive chef Thomas Riordan, who traded a position as executive sous chef at the Phoenician resort in Arizona for the full-time job in Aspen.Seidel says his contributions to the inaugural Chefs Club menu are in line with what he would create at Fruition: a Colorado lamb saddle with Fruition Farm ricotta gnocchi and a tomato confit; a small plate of smoked sturgeon salad with beluga lentils, red onion and a rye blini; and English pea agnolotti with morel mushrooms, crme fraiche and black truffle vinaigrette. “Peas and morels – that’s common; that’s approachable to people,” Seidel, who will also be a judge at the finals of the Grand Cochon pig-cooking competition, Sunday, June 17 at the Hotel Jerome, said.Catering to the tastes of his regular diners rather than to fellow chefs has resulted, perhaps logically, in a challenge in keeping chefs. Many ambitious chefs, it turns out, want to work with frogs legs and squab. But Seidel prefers chefs who can appreciate the simple perfection of ordinary ingredients.”Chefs want to be so creative,” he said. “They’ll take tomato and basil and put them together in a way that’s unrecognizable. They spin it into taro chips or something. But tomato and basil – that works, so why stray away from it? Why not just get the best tomato and basil?”email@example.com
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