Food Matters: Anatomy of a $16 sweet potato (and other vegetable masterpieces by Meat & Cheese executive chef Bryan Garneau)
Yes, you read that right. Meat & Cheese Restaurant’s winter takeout-only menu features a sweet potato side dish for 16 bucks. Yet like most of the food conceived by executive chef Bryan Garneau, this is not just a sweet potato.
When I open the brown box at home, my reaction is instinctive. “Wow,” I say out loud. Though I’ve already spoken with Garneau at length about his winter vegetable creations—the layers of garnish on each dish, the step-by-step detail of each process—I’m genuinely surprised at the meal-for-one within. Nestled on a pool of creamy, vibrant green froth is the star: a “three-hour-roasted” sweet potato, butterflied open and almost totally obscured by “herb salad.”
“Parsley, tarragon, and chive batons tossed with white balsamic, a simple vinaigrette,” Garneau noted. “The bright flavors of the herbs pop, with toasted, crushed pepitas on top. We finish it with crispy, shaved speck chips.”
I peel away a gooey, blackened edge of skin, oozing natural sugar from the slow, low bake. Here is another sauce: savory-sweet apple cider gastrique, infused with the spice flavor of peppercorns and bay leaves and thickened with caramelized onion purée. The gastrique lacquers the potato “meat”—which melts instantly on the tongue as if it was actually puréed and poured back into the shell before serving—and pools into the lemony, blanched-kale crème-fraîche on the bottom of the box. Clearly this humble sweet potato represents a lot of work and care.
“We’re taking time to make it super pretty, as if it was on a plate,” Garneau explains. “That helps us stay creative in the kitchen, even though it’s to-go (food). We want to give the customers back an experience.”
When COVID first hit this past spring, the Meat & Cheese team streamlined operations by combining lunch and dinner menus into one all-day menu. “As time went on, I started to get really bored of what we were able to serve, and I felt for our customers,” Garneau admits. “We were offering sandwiches at dinner, not many entrées.”
Now, after a busy summer of takeout as well as dine-in and patio service, Meat & Cheese is offering separate, robust menus for lunch and dinner on a takeout-only basis. (Garneau and the culinary team are serving diners indoors this winter in a promising new venture downstairs at the bar Hooch, more on that below.)
“Everything on our winter menu, we really considered how it was gonna carry out and sit for 40 minutes before it’s eaten and still be good,” Garneau says. “We had that intention. Everything travels really well. I live between Carbondale and Redstone, and I brought the (mushroom) risotto home. It was still pretty warm and tasted phenomenal.”
Garneau’s current favorite is the tempura Japanese eggplant. “That will stay crispy,” he assured me. And it did, though I arrived home in under 10 minutes. The portion was smaller than I expected, but the flavors were bold: A schmear of harissa cashew butter with preserved lemon on the bottom, topped with the vegan, gluten-free fried eggplant disks and a Mediterranean sauté of Swiss chard, garbanzo beans, charred cherry tomatoes, toasted crushed almonds, and preserved lemon bits for bursts of bold flavor.
Meanwhile, the bestselling winter squash gnocchi are made from “super-sweet, dense, and the coolest-color orange” bounty harvested at Wild Mountain Seeds on Sunfire Ranch in Carbondale. Sauteed in browned butter, the pasta pillows are enrobed with more apple cider vinegar gastrique, shards of melty Manchego cheese, and garlicky “chile crunch,” which leaves a warm, lingering heat on the lips. (That last touch has been a favorite garnish on other dishes at Meat & Cheese for a while.)
In truth, my vegetable adventure began a week ago at Hooch. I joined two friends for a celebratory outing; Hooch’s new prix-fixe tasting dinner was just the ticket. Here Garneau’s three-course menu ($85) combines French technique (rabbit roulade and rillettes; mushroom risotto; halibut poached in yuzu ponzu broth; tomahawk steak for two) with seasonal produce via Farm Runners. After tearing slices of crusty sourdough from a massive loaf, we tucked into Garneau’s winter salad.
It was a pile of green, red, pink and white: frisée, arugula and shredded radicchio mixed with matchsticks of Hakurei baby turnip, pear and watermelon radish, shaved Parmesan cheese, crunchy candied walnuts, and pomegranate seeds, all enrobed in a mouthcoating, tongue-smacking sherry-mustard vinaigrette. Our table spent the entire salad course making exclamations between bites. “It’s almost ‘meaty,’” was one memorable comment. (The salad is on Meat & Cheese’s takeout menu as well.)
The dressing was inspired by a sherry-mustard-butter sauce from a summer scallop special. “It tasted really good over the garnish salad we had on the scallops, so I turned it into a vinaigrette,” Garneau says. Here he uses a dash of melted butter “to take the bite out of the mustard and the edge off of the frisée.”
Made with Colorado honey and butter, the candied walnuts are a throwback to a popular spinach salad at the acclaimed Scotty’s Table in Missoula, Montana.
“I learned to cook in Montana in a fine-dining atmosphere—and even in Denver at Root Down, the dinners were a little more plated,” Garneau explains, ticking off his kitchen experience. “One reason I chose to work at Meat & Cheese is their business model—they source ethically, they care about local food and farmers. That’s what I’m about as a chef. I love lunches (and) the fast-paced atmosphere. But there’s a little part of me that misses more plated, fine-dining for dinner.”
Not anymore. When owner Wendy Mitchell eliminated dine-in service at Meat & Cheese for the season, a door opened at Hooch downstairs. Originally a craft cocktail bar—and where expertly mixed quaffs and wine pairing are a big part of the prix-fixe experience now—Hooch as a pop-up restaurant of sorts was a blank slate.
“As a chef that was exciting, to use a new space,” Garneau says. French food fit with the sultry vibe of the subterranean spot. “And that’s what I learned to cook first.”
Even though Garneau is overseeing a third operation — Meat & Cheese’s commissary kitchen in the AABC, where cooks prepare family-style meal kits for contactless pickup — Hooch is his creative outlet. It’s a place for Garneau to flex his skills in classical French technique and plate food that is, quite literally, out of the box.
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Longtime Aspenite Mark Howard’s new memoir, “A Rewiring Life,” chronicles a life of change across five decades in Aspen.