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The evolution of food to fuel the W Aspen social scene

Amanda Rae
Food Matters

W Aspen

Breakfast: 7 to 10:30 a.m Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner: 5 to 10 p.m. All-day menu: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m 550 S. Spring St. 970-431-0800 waspenhotel.com

Go-go dancers clad in candy-colored onesies unzipped gyrate above partygoers in ski gear and swimsuits. A pair of Swedish DJs in metallic spandex orchestrate futuristic ambience from a silver nugget sound booth. A freewheeling parade of costumed alter egos celebrate Aspen Halloween with shouts and fist pumps. From combat boots paired with fluffy robes to sequined jumpsuits, furry suits and wigs worn just because, crowds at the W Aspen have at times been flashy and full of energy. As anyone who has attempted to navigate through writhing bodies toward the bar or photo booth might wonder: who’s even thinking about food?

Since the W Aspen opened in August, executive chef Jacque Siao has studied the vibe of the property’s various venues, including the 8,000-square-foot rooftop Wet Deck; the second-floor Living Room with its own outdoor patio; and the sunken, cave-like 39 Degrees lounge, to determine how to best feed these people. Now, as X Games kicks off its 18th season in Aspen with an official bash hosted by gold medalist Alex Ferreira on Jan. 22, Siao is prepped to serve what revelers want.

“It’s a socializing scene, so (mostly) appetizers to share with a group of friends,” says Siao, who revamped W Aspen menus to reflect these preferences. The Living Room’s all-day menu currently features nearly a dozen plates of casual “snacky stuff,” including popular mainstays such as pulled chicken loaded nachos and green curry mussels.

Catching on fast: charred green beans with black garlic aioli; tuna crudo with yuzu pearls and slivered jalapeno; dips, wings and veal-pork-beef Swedish meatballs with apple butter gastrique, celery root purée, maitake mushrooms and lingonberry jam. MVP right now: buttermilk-soaked cauliflower, fried until crispy and coated in soy-Buffalo glaze. Three expansive platters of cheese and charcuterie are available on this all-day menu, as well as salads, and broccoli-cheddar soup served with artisanal sourdough bread, until 10 p.m.

“It’s about experiencing the scene,” Siao reiterates.

Indeed, the W Aspen’s blowout New Year’s Eve bash featured mountains of crab legs, shrimp cocktail and wagyu beef skewers, but merrymakers mostly focused on the literal tower of G.H. Mumm Champagne that filled an entire corner of a room. Legendary West Hollywood watering hole and entertainment venue The Abbey Food & Bar hosted a flamboyant weekend pop-up on the Wet Deck during Aspen Gay Ski Week; mirroring the original venue, food was not the draw.

Previous restaurants at which Siao has worked were mostly ski-in, ski-out, “so it was breakfast, lunch and dinner, day in day out,” Siao says. “Here we’re not in that position. We have a heavy flow in breakfast…après and dinner. Lunch is kind of mellow…sandwiches and bowls. The snow has been great, so everyone wants to be on the mountain.”

Fast, nutritious, midday meals are made in bowls: Ahi tuna, shrimp tempura and avocado over rice with accouterments, called the “J Bowl”; warm salmon over rice noodles with raw vegetables and charred onion and miso dressing; or the Super Food Bowl with hibiscus-infused barley and quinoa, roasted beets, grapefruit vinaigrette and goat cheese fondue. Siao’s new miso-ginger ramen boasts broth with charred, sweet flavor, double-aged soy, orange- and apple cider vinegar-cured pork belly, a soft poached egg, pickled carrots, scallions, chiles, “the whole works.”

Aside from a handful of dinner entrées, everything else is sharable, including the epic FnK (“fork and knife”) Burger.

“You literally can’t eat it with your hands: double patty, double bacon, double cheese, short ribs, barbecue sauce, secret sauce…it is a MONSTER!” the chef says. “The goal is to have healthy options and indulgence.”

Siao, plus three sous chefs and a kitchen team of 20, has learned that attracting diners is largely weather-based. When a blizzard engulfs our hamlet, folks trade the Wet Deck for the cozy bubble that is the Living Room. Likewise, “Hot Box” specials from a Traeger smoker-grill that lives on the second-level patio will resume in summer when guests feel compelled to hang outdoors. Soon, Siao hopes to offer grab-and-go breakfast sandwiches and coffee in collaboration with Bitsy Caravan, which offered complimentary hot chocolate during the LGBT debauchery last weekend.

39 Degrees, meanwhile, has yet to draw the buzz of its namesake predecessor at the Sky Hotel. Fine, Siao says: 39 Degrees will be reimagined as a main spot for intimate culinary experiences, such as themed dinners and food and cocktail pairings, beginning in February or March.

As with any new property—Aspen’s first new luxury hotel construction in more than two decades, especially—adjustments are evolving. And chef Siao is taking culinary cues to heart.

“Up here is the place to be,” Siao quips, perched in the Living Room on a Thursday afternoon among a blooming après-ski crowd. “We’re seeing that people are more attracted to this space. No one’s really hanging out at midnight.”

W Aspen executive chef Jacque Siao’s happy place, as a chef? In the midst of an expertly curated dinner for hotel guests, residence owners or other clients.

“I get a feel of who they are and what they want to experience,” says Siao, who might host an in-kitchen workshop with a young, budding chef or games night for a family group. “It’s (about) more interaction between the guests and the kitchen than just a transaction. It’s personal. It’s playful. For me, working in a restaurant from one hotel to another, (guests) don’t (typically) get that outside-the-box experience.”

Imagination is key, and education inevitable. An easy introduction: via the W Aspen cocktail cart, from which staff bartenders will demo signature beverages and share personal mixology philosophy. Want food with that? Chef Siao is on it.

amandaraewashere@gmail.com


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