Keystone restaurant wins top accolades in Colorado
KEYSTONE – The culinary experience behind the food served at The Keystone Ranch tells the story of why the establishment was named the state’s top restaurant this year and for three years running by the Zagat Survey.
Executive chef David Welch, running The Ranch’s kitchen for eight years, started in the business in 1978 as a dishwasher at the age of 17. As a Keystone ski bum, he skied 195 days a year but was impressed by the culinary displays he scraped off plates while working at night.
Welch’s passion brought him from humble beginnings to the top echelon in a competitive industry.
Eschewing formal training and a culinary degree for the “school of hard knocks,” Welch spent years training under experienced chefs in kitchens all over the state.
Twenty-six years later, he skis only two days per year and instead spends his life in the kitchen – training students of the Colorado Mountain College culinary program in the way he learned to cook – with a hands-on approach.
The 10 people wearing chefs hats alongside Welch are all apprentices and make up the entire kitchen staff, and still – or maybe that is why – the restaurant is named top in the state.
The Zagat Survey’s “America’s Top Restaurants” is a consumer-based guide to dining. The Ranch received 28 out of 30 points in all three categories of food, service and atmosphere – an unusual achievement even on national standards.
Tom Juliano, vice president of hospitality for Keystone Resort, said the staff’s commitment to excellence is what brings the establishment accolades.
“What we have here is passion,” Juliano said. “You can’t take a dishwasher and make him the executive chef of the No. 1 restaurant in the region if he doesn’t have passion.”
And Welch’s passion is duplicated – or maybe emulated – at every level of management at the restaurant.
“There’s not a weak link anywhere in the building,” Welch said.
Indeed, a position on the wait staff is highly coveted and sought after in this ski town, where there are plenty of restaurant jobs and thousands of tourists who make padding a waiter’s billfold easy.
But there’s no hint of conceit in Welch’s “weak link” comment. The typical high-brow attitude found in fine dining restaurants is absent across-the-board at The Ranch. Welch speaks plainly when describing his menu and its ingredients and so does the wait staff when helping guests order.
The prix fixe ($92 per person) seven-course dinner is difficult only in that diners must make menu choices from appetizer to dessert before the kitchen receives the order.
“The mystic of fine dining is not found here,” Welch said. “There’s none of that, ‘Oh, I don’t know what I’m eating.’ There’s no stigma; we just want people to come in here and eat good food.”
Welch describes the menu as American regional with accents of Colorado cuisine. Kitchen orders for fresh foods are made to Palisade for peaches and Steamboat Springs for lamb but Hawaii is also a daily supplier for the chef’s seafood selections. Sauces are classically French but Welch said he is careful to not lose the rustic Colorado history when creating menus.
Each dish is presented uniquely in style and by choosing different china, so that nothing that is served is repeated in an entire evening.
The structure that is The Ranch was expanded several times since the main cabin was built in 1938. Hand-hewn logs and mountain views can take visitors back to the homesteading days of the West, when surrounding fields (now the Ranch Golf Course) were filled with lettuce and cattle, but the building’s real atmosphere begins to impose on guests when they head to the living room for dessert.
The original house was built around the two-story stone fireplace that graces the center of the room, where guests make idle chitchat and sink into overstuffed sofas for the latter portion of the meal. There, as the fire crackles and the wait staff make two-foot coffee pours and serve truffles on silver plates, it is evident why the restaurant receives high marks for food, service and atmosphere.
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