Where once spring and fall in the world-renowned ski town and summer recreation mecca of Vail, Colorado, signifi ed restaurant closures, deep kitchen cleans and front-of-the-house employees’ weeks-long trips to Indonesia, there has increasingly been only a slight lull between restaurant seasons in Vail and in many other of Colorado’s most famous resort towns. One Vail Chef that has experienced this trend fi rst hand is Paul Anders, executive chef of two Vail restaurants; the iconic, Sweet Basil, and ultra nouveau, Mountain Standard.
Anders originally moved to Vail in 2005, seeking a change from the fast-paced environment of cooking for successful urban restaurant giants including the Brown Palace in Denver and the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. Only, when Anders got to Vail, cheflife didn’t slow down.
Anders accepted a position as Chef de Cuisine at Sweet Basil and after only one winter season, with his experience and dedication to his craft, he was promoted to Executive Chef. In December 2012 he was promoted again to Executive Chef of both Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard, overseeing menu development at both restaurants. Any in-between season lulls have been disappearing ever since.
“The classic ‘mud’ or ‘o‑ ’ seasons have progressively gotten shorter and shorter,” said Anders. “I moved here eleven years ago and from then to now, there’s a remarkable di‑ erence in the number of visitors and residents here year-round. We do close to one hundred covers a night during the shoulder season, when fi ve years ago, we did thirty.” It is not only the infl ux of visitors and residents enjoying Vail year-round that keep Anders and his team busy during the disappearing ‘o‑ ’ season, but increased e‑ orts by the town of Vail to broaden cultural experiences, most recently by securing a new sister city relationship with San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, are reasons for more bodies occupying seats in Chef Anders’ restaurants year round.
“This year, we’re really pushing the idea of a cultural culinary exchange with top chefs in San Miguel de Allende. We’re going down for a big food festival in the middle of Junewe’re participating in it and cooking in it. The following week, their most notable chefs will come here and do a 5-course dinner at Sweet Basil. The two Mexican chefs will do a course, our chefs at Mountain Standard will do a course and our pastry chef will do desert.”
What keeps patrons visiting Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard during the traditionally “o‑ ” seasons are the playful combinations and free cooking techniques that both Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard are known for despite their markedly di‑ erent concepts.
“Sweet Basil is 39 years old this year,” said Anders. “The cool thing about Sweet Basil is that it’s hard to defi ne what it is, therefore it’s easy to stay ahead of the curve, do remodels, freshen things up- so it doesn’t feel like a 39-year-old restaurant.” What is undeniable about Sweet Basil, is that it’s always evolving.
“I’ve looked at past menus I’ve done just fi ve years ago, and laugh at them. There have been so many changes,” said Anders. “While the restaurant is upscale, we pull from infl uences that are inspiring to us. If the chefs are interested in Spanish cooking, we’ll create Spanish dishes- it’s the fun about modern American cuisine, it’s always evolving.” One thing that stays consistent at Sweet Basil, is its name.
“At this point, the name Sweet Basil is such a brand that I don’t see us changing it,” said Anders. “We recently bounced the idea around, but at this point- it would be like changing the name of Kraft. Sweet Basil is just so iconic in Vail.” The inspiration for Mountain Standard was based on a more casual approach.
“Purposely, we wanted a place that was more approachable on a daily basis,” said Anders. “Our original blueprint for Mountain Standard was that we wanted a place that is as comfortable to a CEO as it is to a liftie. We quickly focused on the wood-fi re element-we wanted to have that openness when we cook.” Anders and his team employ a wood-fi re cooking technique that touches nearly every dish on the menu, down to the wood-charred tomatoes in Mountain Standard’s signature bloody Mary’s.
“It’s not smoke-house style BBQ, it’s a quick cooking process. Wood-fi re cooking is not a very level playing fi eld. Put a steak on a gas grill versus a wood burning grill- same seasoning, same cut of meat, and without a doubt, the wood grilled meat is going to taste better. It’s primeval and really organic- that’s the fun part about it. We can’t just come in and turn the knob. To get a good cooking surface it takes about three or four hours and then maintaining that throughout the day.”
And while wood-fi red cooking is the preferred style of cooking at Mountain Standard, there is no shortage of variety of dishes. Mountain Standard has been open for only three and a half years and they are already on volume 29 of menus. “The volume number is printed on the top of every menu. It’s kind of a cool little thing to look for.” And despite the volumes of menu’s Mountain Standard puts out, one thing that is for certain is that the menu items are always fresh.
“Hopefully it’s a forgone conclusion that restaurants these days are seasonal,” said Anders. “We try to be micro-seasonal. Colorado Peaches are amazing, but they’re not ready until August- so that’s when you’ll start seeing them on our menus. We work with farmers that give us a little road map of what’s coming in season. We like to use a trickle e‑ ect, introducing new menu items when they become available. We’ll change 7 or 8 items one week, then the next week, change 4 or 5 items as the weather changes and more becomes available.” Even in a place with as high of culinary peaks as there are in Vail, there are also valleys.
“It’s hard for chefs to support a high level of quality year round. People come and go,” said Anders. “There’s a huge shortage of cooks in the country. Cooks don’t get paid very well. They pay a lot to go to culinary school, they need to pay rent, and it takes long hours and a lot of very hard work to get to the point of becoming a professional chef.” Anders uses unique tactics to retain top quality chefs at Mountain Standard and Sweet Basil.
“We o‑ er employee housing opportunities, great benefi ts and wages, but the one retention factor we’ve found to be the biggest infl uence is that we try to be an educational kitchen; cooks love to learn. If they’re not feeling like they’re learning every day, they’ll go somewhere else. Keep teaching them, keep them engaged, keep them,” said Anders.
In an environment where o‑ seasons are shrinking based on more and more people choosing lifestyle over life’s limitations, chef Anders still manages to be true to his roots and the reasons that inspired him to move to Vail in the fi rst place.
A regular contributor and 3-time winner of Taste of Vail (most notably for the annual lamb cook o‑ event), and participant of Gourmet on Gore, another signature Vail culinary event, Anders stays true to all that’s local.
“We end up jamming so many things into the o‑ season- it’s never really slow. In addition to all the local events we prepare for, we do weekly special-event dinners, cocktail parties, and more. It’s totally about the lifestyle.
It’s about not having a stoplight on my way to work. I have two young kids, being able to raise them in a place like this is unparalleled. That, and being able to work at two caliber restaurants is pretty special.”