Summit County culinary legend Doug Schwartz retires from role at Colorado Mountain College
September 10, 2016
Doug Schwartz' story of moving to Summit County is typical to a majority of transplants — it was 1977 and he came to the mountains to ski "just for one season."
His first job as a security guard at Keystone kept him busy for 12-hour shifts from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and as a "poor ski bum," as he called himself, he occasionally pilfered food from the kitchens. It was the day he was caught by the chef that changed the course of his life.
"He came in early, like 6 or something, and said, 'You know, instead of stealing the food every night, why don't you just come to work in the kitchen,'" Schwartz said.
With the draw of free meals, the young Schwartz began what would end up being a long career in the hospitality industry. He chose on-the-job learning in both Colorado and around the world over a formal culinary education, eventually bringing the idea of an apprentice-style learning program to Summit County. As the founder of Colorado Mountain College's (CMC) Culinary Institute, Schwartz' program now provides aspiring chefs an opportunity to learn in the classroom while working in real kitchens. CMC's Recreational Culinary Institute program can also be credited to Schwartz, as well as the opening of many restaurants and businesses.
The chef and entrepreneur has had a hand in multiple hospitality facets since he first stepped into the kitchen as a way to support his passion for skiing. After building a life in the industry, meeting and marrying his wife, Mary, and having their two children, Schwartz is ready to begin the next adventure in retirement.
LEARNING ON THE JOB
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Schwartz found himself at a crossroads after working for several years in Keystone kitchens.
"I was going to go to culinary school, and the chef said, 'You might want to go, you may not want to go, you can really learn it on the job,'" he said. "Since I didn't have a lot of money, I said, 'I think I'll do that.'"
The chef suggested he branch out to hotels to earn more experience in the industry, so he began working for a property in West Virginia. After a stint on the East Coast, he followed his mentor chef from Keystone to Durango, working for him once more in Colorado.
Those initial years Schwartz traveled a lot, working in West Virginia, Colorado, Hawaii and France. He opened a luxury hotel on the big island of Hawaii — "I opened a lot of hotels," he said, before opening a conference center in Colorado Springs.
Bouncing out of the country for a few years, Schwartz worked in the kitchen at the only American restaurant in Paris, France. Moving to Burgundy, he became the chef for the world's largest hot air balloon company, creating meals for wealthy clients.
The job was only seasonal, so he and his then-fiance, Mary, whom he had met in Colorado Springs, were able to travel through countries like Nepal and India, and also spent a winter back at Keystone working at the Ski Tip Lodge.
"We got engaged but we never had time to get married," Schwartz laughed.
After eventually moving back to Keystone in 1985 and back to the U.S. for good, he again took the chef job at the Ski Tip having already booked his own wedding at the outlet — Schwartz ended up preparing his own wedding dinner with his staff.
"She was pulling me out of the kitchen at like 10 minutes till," he said.
With a change in the structure of management at Keystone, he took a job as chef of mountain operations for about six months. It was around this time that he started pushing the idea of an apprentice-style learning program for chefs at the resort, but at the time it didn't receive any support.
In 1991 he moved on to take an executive chef position at Saddleridge Restaurant in Beaver Creek, but the commute from Summit County put a strain on him, especially after the birth of his first child, Sarah.
"We were still doing the crazy hours, and when you add in the commute, I said, 'To hell with this I'm not doing it anymore,'" Schwartz said.
At that point he had been working as a chef for 20 years, and he decided it was time to step out of the kitchen and into the business end of the culinary world. He opened a coffee cart in Breckenridge at the base of the resort, and he and his wife slung espresso "as fast as we could hold the handle."
CREATING THE CULINARY PROGRAM
After years of Schwartz pushing to implement an apprentice-style learning program, CMC came to him in 1993 and asked him to put it together. Schwartz sold the coffee cart and did a feasibility study to marry the resort and the college, which was not an easy task, he said.
After writing the curriculum and job description for director of the program, he was tasked with finding someone to put in the position.
"We found some candidates but they were all way too expensive," he laughed. "So they said, 'Do you want to apply for the job?'"
He launched the program and was director of culinary education for CMC's Culinary Institute at Keystone from 1993 to 2000. The Institute started with 15-18 students in each class, and by the time his reign was up, Schwartz saw more like 35 to 40 students entering each year.
The program helped staff Keystone with dedicated workers. Before the program was implemented, the resort struggled with employees.
"We were trying to run a world-class resort with ski bums as cooks," he said.
Schwartz estimates 80 percent of the chefs in the kitchens now are graduates and 80 percent of the workforce are apprentice-oriented.
In 2000, a friend from New York called him up one day to tell him about a soup kitchen that had a line of 100 people out the door. The kitchen was the same one featured on a "Seinfield" episode, and Schwartz flew out to the city to meet the "soup Natzi" and learn more about the business. He brought the model home, and opened Zuppa Soup Bar and Bakery in the City Market shopping center in Breckenridge, bringing the concept of a quick-service $5 meal to town.
"It was this screaming success from day one," he said. "There was a line out the door. … I was doing 350 to 400 covers a day with no seats."
In 2005, he sold the business and opened Food Hedz in Frisco with chef David Welch, who was also his sous chef at the Ski Tip. The two amicably parted ways after opening the business, with Welch continuing on with Food Hedz and Schwartz moving on to work for US Foods for two years. While the economy was still good, he was a food service consultant for West Coast hotels. After the economy went south, and no one was developing hotels, he found himself unemployed overnight.
It was then he turned back to the college and helped CMC create a recreational culinary program. He wrote the program and then again took the job as director for the Recreational Culinary Institute in 2009.
"For a lot of reasons it became very successful," he said. "There was a market for it. There were a lot of people who lived here with discretionary income and discretionary time."
He brought on a Summit County personal chef, Ian Buchanan, to help teach the classes. They created more than 90 different classes and cataloged roughly 700 to 800 recipes, or more, over the years, covering almost every ethnic group in styles of food. After seven years with the recreational program, Schwartz decided it was time to pass the torch, and Buchanan is now taking over as director.
"There's nothing about the program that he doesn't understand," Schwartz said.
With many well-established culinary adventure classes, Buchanan is currently working to add a health and wellness component to CMC's courses. Teaming up with Centura Health, new instructors have been brought in to teach courses on diet, meal planning and healthy habits for those with cancer, diabetes or just individuals looking to educate themselves on healthy eating. The first class within this category, Healing Cancer with Flavor, sold out. Buchanan is also working on future courses targeted to individuals with athletic lifestyles.
"We're trying to change the misconception that food that's good for you doesn't taste good, because that's not the case," Buchanan said. "We're trying to get people to reconnect with food again … really start looking at our health preventively through good food."
Schwartz and his wife bought an old farmhouse in Fort Collins, which they plan to restore. Mary has plans to raise bees, and although Schwartz considers himself "semi-retired," he is debating taking a job with a chef he worked with at Keystone many years ago. They have plans to return to Summit County often.
Schwartz paved the way for many chefs, and was an integral piece to helping build Summit's culinary scene in its early resort years and beyond. His mark will be left on the community — and his friends — for years to come.
"He was by far the best person I've ever worked with in 20 years of being in the culinary industry," Buchanan said.
Schwartz won several awards throughout his career, including College Wide Instructor of the Year at CMC and Philanthropist of the Year awarded by The Summit Foundation. Buchanan is quick to note not only Schwartz' business accomplishments, but also his giving nature — building homes in South America and Mexico and volunteering at the Summit Senior Center — and his willingness to give back to the community in any way he could.
"He has a huge heart," Buchanan said.
Schwartz is already missed in the CMC kitchen, Buchanan said.
"We created this working relationship that was also a friendship," he said. "He was my dad at times, my uncle at times, he was my boss at times, he was my mentor at times, but most important he was a good friend. … We had an amazing friendship that we built over the last seven years, and it was around food, and how cool is that?"
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