Here is one way Jim Butchart could have filled his beef needs: He could have filled out standardized order forms and taken delivery of the meat off trucks rolling in from immense feedlots on the Front Range—or maybe Nebraska. Had he taken this approach—essentially maintaining the status quo—he would have had good reasons to do so.
As the Aspen Skiing Company’s new executive chef, mountain division—handling the menus for Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass (Skico restaurants at Aspen Mountain are handled by a separate division)—Butchart had 11 restaurant operations to get familiar with, most of these a good ways up a mountain. The eateries range from the cavernous cafeteria Bumps at the base of Buttermilk to the barbecue joint Sam’s Smokehouse on Snowmass Mountain to Cloud Nine, a cozy spot inspired by old-fashioned Austrian ski lodges, on Aspen Highlands.
Butchart is engineering extensive transformations of several spots for winter 2010–11: The Ullrhof, mid-mountain on Snowmass, is going the burger/fries/shake route, while Two Creeks, at the base of Snowmass, is being turned from a Mexican restaurant into a café.
Aside from being occupied with the new job he took last June, there was financial incentive to carry on established practices. Selling burgers to captive, hungry skiers at on-mountain restaurants was, forgive the phrase, a cash cow for the Skico.
But Butchart, a 37-year-old Cleveland native who projects the practicality of a born Midwesterner, came to the job with a drive to shake things up. He proposed that Skico use nothing but grassfed, locally sourced beef for all the burgers and chili served in the restaurants under his purview, “which I’m finding is no small task,” he says. Butchart’s research indicated that the change would mean a hit of some $40,000 to Skico’s bottom line.
But Skico went for it. Skiers this winter will be fueling their afternoon turns on beef from Milagro Ranch, a Missouri Heights producer that not only raises its cattle on grass but is certified humane. (Until now, diners at only select Skico restaurants had a choice of ordering a burger made with Milagro beef.)
“I started raising questions about how we do things, from the environment to sustainability to sourcing locally, and they gave me a lot of freedom,” says Butchart, who since late 2008 had been executive chef at the Skico-owned Ajax Tavern. “I went to the executive committee, and they’re willing to make this stance and walk the walk. It’s a big cost. But it’s the right thing to do.”
This is how Butchart chose his beef. He’s met face-to-face with downvalley ranchers, conducting extensive taste tests and planning how to receive deliveries from local, small-scale producers. After choosing Milagro, his energy focused on answering the next critical question: Will Milagro Ranch, operated by Felix and Sarah Tornare, be able to ramp up production and supply the 17,000 pounds of beef served at Snowmass, Highlands and Buttermilk?
The flip side of that burden, of course, is significant opportunity. Skico’s decision to source only local beef means a major bump in revenue for Milagro. And for diners, chefs and cooks as well as ranchers, there is an enhanced experience of all the ideals of sustainable food production: health, community, the well-being of the environment and the local economy.
“We love the fact we’re keeping dollars in the Valley, and helping small-scale farmers on their land, and building community,” Butchart says. “It makes you feel good about the food you’re able to serve. Any time you can be that much closer to the source, it’s easier to keep the pulse of what you’re serving. And forget fossil fuels, or whatever it takes to deliver it from Denver. It’s building this community, and building the belief of slow foods, that philosophy.”
While Butchart aims to keep the beef cycle local, part of his attention is on the global picture. Butchart recognizes that anything with the Aspen name attached to it has the potential for traveling far and wide; perhaps most pertinent, he has seen his colleague Ryan Hardy, chef of the Skico’s Montagna at The Little Nell, earn widespread praise for his cuisine that emphasizes local ingredients and a human touch. Butchart sees his opportunity not only in terms of what happens at the upper end of the Roaring Fork Valley, but what could happen at ski resorts in California, Vermont and British Columbia.
“We’re redefining what can be done with our mountain dining,” Butchart says, adding that the switch in beef source is accompanied by expanding gluten-free options, introducing healthy options to skischool lunches, and using only disposables that are compostible or recyclable. “I don’t see this as any different from Wal-Mart’s initiative to offer locally sourced produce in their mix. It’s big companies that can reshape how we eat, making it accessible. Aspen and the Aspen Skiing Company have always been seen as leaders in the industry. This is going to stir some things up. I firmly believe we can change on-mountain dining across the country.”
Butchart knows that the world of food can be a pretty dynamic place, and that change can happen fairly quickly. Not even a decade ago, the idea of going to a farmers’ market for a restaurant’s produce was out of the question: too expensive, too inconvenient, too smallscale. But over the last few years he has learned that farmers are eager to form partnerships with chefs. In Aspen, he has seen Chef Hardy build a cuisine based on local ingredients—and become an icon in the process. Still, not every step along the way is simple. When he announced his desire to do hand-cut French fries at the Ullrhof, there was a moment’s hesitation.
“I got a raised eyebrow: ‘You really want to do hand-cut fries on the mountain?’” Butchart says. “It was almost a given that we’d do frozen fries. I said, ‘We’ve got to examine this. What’s special about frozen fries?’ A big part of my job is to challenge what we’re currently doing.”
The changes that Butchart has instituted so far are small steps in a bigger plan. A new restaurant on Snowmass’ Elk Camp is scheduled to open in 2012, the same year that the Merry-Go-Round, on Highlands, gets a major renovation. Both would elevate the dining experience; Elk Camp, as he envisions it, would feature wood-oven pizzas, rotisserie chickens and a salad bar. He is looking at building a series of small-scale spots, focused on crêpes or shots of schnapps, to create a unique mountain experience.
But as soon as this winter, Butchart expects that touches like grass-fed beef, hand-cut fries and gluten-free kids’ pasta will have a noticeable effect on the mountain experience.
“By redefining the status quo of on-mountain dining, people have a better ski experience,” he says. “They’re not sluggish; they’re ready to go back out there and ski. “How many times do we say, ‘This is a lifestyle’? Well, let’s add food to that lifestyle.”