Jim Butchart is the Executive Chef of Aspen Skiing Company, a role that gives him oversight of the on-mountain restaurants at Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk.
With his training in classical French cuisine — and a background that includes stints at Joel Restaurant in Atlanta, Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, and Thomas Keller’s acclaimed restaurant The French Laundry — Jim understands that great cuisine always begins with great ingredients.
One look at the salad bar at Elk Camp, or the Mongolian barbecue at The Cliffhouse, and you’ll see his passion for ingredients firsthand. We chatted recently about how his team pulls it off … and how he plans his powder days around his appetite.
Overseeing so many restaurants on three different mountains has to be a big challenge. How do you approach this task? Do you have a common theme for all of those restaurants, or do you tailor each menu to the unique clientele on each mountain?
We have a really unique situation with our restaurants. They all have their own character and their own identity. We have a broad palate and can go all-in on what we want to serve, and yet its also very specific at each restaurant.
Sam’s Smokehouse is a good example of that. It’s a traditional smokehouse barbecue, and that’s it. We want to do it and do it very well, and not muddle it with something else.
Also, at Cliffhouse, we’re driving for an authentic Asian feel. Everything starts with the Mongolian grill concept. We still serve a burger or chicken sandwich there, but we’ll give those a teriyaki or Polynesian twist. Our chef — we’re just so fortunate — his girlfriend is Thai and he spends a ton of time there and in Vietnam and Cambodia and so he immerses himself in the culture and cuisine there, and then he brings that back to us.
Let’s talk specifically about Elk Camp. What’s the driving philosophy behind the menu there?
With Elk Camp, we really threw everything out when it came to “on-mountain dining.” We didn’t want to do what had already been done. Instead, we looked to Italy and Chelsea Market in New York and even Whole Foods. Places where food is the center stage and you pick what you want to eat with your eyes rather than a menu board. So we really had that concept and started off with a message focused on local, sustainable food.
We made a conscious decision not to have burgers and French fries up there. We didn’t want a fryer or grill on the main line. Instead, we wanted three anchors: the rotisserie, the pizza oven and the salad bar. We make sure that every chicken we serve is born and raised in Colorado — some 75 miles down the road from us, in fact. We get a lot of our greens from a local producer … we’ve really opened ourselves up to having a market approach. Instead of having things dictated on a menu of have-to-haves, we have a broad concept that allows chefs to create daily specials.
Elk Camp has been so popular, and its been very refreshing for people to have it. We have this beautiful building — I think of it as we have someone’s living room and we’re just entertaining from the kitchen. The serving area flows into the dining room and you feel like you are in one great room. We have beautiful subway, white-tile back walls, and that allows the food to pop and speak to people. The guys are prepping right on the line, working with fresh ingredients and you can see that freshness right there. The rotisserie is huge. We spent a lot of time and research on it, and we went with a Rotisol, which is like the Cadillac of rotisseries. Its such a visually appealing piece of equipment, we wanted to put it right there for everyone to see. As a result, people come up the gondola just to eat there — whether they’re skiing or not.
Where do you get produce in winter?
There are two things that we’ve been able to do. We work with Eagle Springs Organics who are located in Silt to get our chickens, and they also have four high-tunnels which allows them to grow produce year-round. In winter, they grow our salad greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, herbs and other things.
We also use Source Local Foods — a coop that utilizes growers on the Front Range where the growing season is longer — and they ship it to us in Aspen. They also help us on the backend with our used fry oil from our restaurants. They take it and give us a credit toward buying our produce.
But it can be a challenge in the winter. The meats, the dairy, the cheese we buy — what we ask our chefs to do is be mindful when they source their ingredients. We want 15 to 20 percent of our foods to be from Colorado.
What are the main differences between the winter menu at Elk Camp, and the summer menu?
In the summer, it is much more grill-oriented. We have an outdoor grill that we are able to run. Everything pops a little more in the summer because we have this bountiful array of produce that is available to us. We have so many nearby farms we can deal with in the summer, like Rendezvouz Farm in Paonia, and some of the co-ops available in Crawford. Everyone looks forward to a season-change when you are cooking. You know, you’re tired of cooking with butternut squash and heavy creams and root vegetables (laughs), so its nice to get into more of the delicate tomatoes, basil, summer squashes. It’s just refreshing.
What’s your favorite thing on the menu at Elk Camp?
I’m just a big, big fan of our slice of cheese pizza. The dough is done every single day, and the chef who helped me open Elk Camp brought the starter for the dough from Sundeck, and before that, it was from an ancient recipe from San Francisco. While we were waiting for Elk Camp to open, my chef kept the starter in his own refrigerator at home, and he kept feeding it every day. So we have a great starting point for that pizza. I think our slice of cheese pizza rivals anything in the valley … and the brussel sprouts are damn good, too. They do a sweet-soy glaze of pineapple on them.
What can a guest expect from the cuisine and food offerings at Ullr Nights and Valhalla Nights, especially if they have eaten at Elk Camp during the day?
We definitely supplement the fare with more dinner items. The first thing they would notice is that half the salad bar is converted into a raw bar, where we offer poached shrimp, mussels, ceviche, crab legs and crab claws — whatever we can get that is fresh and good. And then over on the pizza station we offer more appetizer options like flatbread. And on the rotisserie, we have prime rib or whole roasting sucking pig or leg of lamb, and additionally we’ll do a salt-crusted fish or cedar-planked whole salmon. We bring heartier dinner items to the concept.
And then we bring out the s’mores kits which you can take out to the fire, beautiful desserts. Again, its that ala carte approach where, if you just want to grab a snack and a bottle of wine and enjoy some bluegrass in the summer, you can do that. Or, you can go for a full dinner. It’s non-commital.
So much of being a chef is knowing what goes well together. What ski runs pair well with lunch at Elk Camp?
It’s funny, because before Elk Camp was on my radar, I didn’t head to that side of the mountain much, but now … (laughs). If you are parked at Two Creeks, and you take the Two Creeks Lift up, you can then base out of Elk Camp, and get great access to Longshot, where you get a small hike in and a great long run, then reward yourself with lunch at Elk Camp. Personally, when I am out skiing, I like to get a hike in as well, so something like Headwall, when the conditions are good — then you feel like you earned that decadent lunch.
When you look at the on-mountain restaurants across all four mountains, what stands out to you as a must-taste menu item?
I always make the joke when I am with my kids and we’re trying to decide where we are going to ski, it is more about “where do we want to have lunch?” My go-to’s are the Cliffhouse — I love the Vietnamese Pho and fresh-vegetable spring rolls with peanut sauce in the fridge case … nobody knows about them — and if we’re going to be anywhere on Snowmass we are going to get the barbecue fries at Sam’s Smokehouse, a cookie at Up 4 Pizza, a slice of pizza or a barbecue chicken Panini at Elk Camp, a huckleberry shake or the classic double cheeseburger at the Ullrhof. I mean, if I want a burger, I’m definitely going there. It’s tough. There’s also Lynn Britt Cabin when I want a glass of wine and rustic Colorado fare.