Right Brain: Executive chef Steve Vlass dishes on menu changes at Keystone Ranch
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The Keystone Ranch debuted a new menu upon opening for the season Friday, Nov. 20. Tweaking the menu to now categorize itself as a Colorado steakhouse, the Ranch utilizes a variety of game and locally-sourced products to feature items such as Imperial Ranch Waygu N.Y. strip, Rosen Farms lamb chops, garden herb-rubbed red bird chicken breast and pumpkin and quinoa croquettes. The restaurant’s executive chef, Steve Vlass, has lived in Summit County for the last 13 years after moving here to begin culinary school at Colorado Mountain College. Vlass, who is often seen out on his mountain bike in the summer, and his wife have a 1-year-old baby boy they are excited to raise in the community. He took some time out of the kitchen to talk a little about life as a chef, and the changes at the Ranch.
Summit Daily News: Tell us a little about your culinary background.
Steve Vlass: I started cooking in my hometown Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. My friends’ family owned a Greek restaurant where I started doing dishes in high school. Then, I began doing some prep during my dishwashing shift before they then showed me how to cook on the hot line for breakfast and lunch. After a little hiatus from working in restaurants, I decided to apply at the Apollo Grill, which was the best restaurant in town. There I started on the cold station, and, within a year, I was working the hot line for lunch and covering the owner’s days off for dinner. This is when the Food Network started on TV, so I was like a sponge — I wanted to learn everything about food. The owners really embraced this and allowed me to play around with ideas for the menu. From here, my now-wife was offered a job in Key Largo, Florida. Her executive pastry chef from the Cloister in Georgia called and wanted her to come work for the winter season with him. I applied for an entry cook position at the Islander Restaurant on the property. I took advantage of working with a great chef and would come in two to three hours early every day to work next to him and learn about fish and local products. We also had a sushi chef in the restaurant. I got to work with him on banquet functions rolling rolls and learning how to make rice and butcher fish. I also worked anywhere I could on the property to learn from all different style of chefs.
After the season wrapped up, we moved to Colorado, so I could enroll in the CMC/Keystone Culinary Apprenticeship program. Here I was a student for three years working at Ski Tip, Keystone Lodge & Spa, Alpenglow Stube and the Conference Center. I took the sous chef position at the Conference Center shortly after I graduated and then worked my way to the executive sous chef, where I did large banquets for up to 1,200 people and large-scale ice carvings for the resort under executive chef Steve Nguyen. I’m going into my fourth year as the executive chef at the Keystone Ranch.
SDN: What was the idea behind the Ranch’s change to a steakhouse?
SV: We decided to add the steakhouse concept to the menu to offer guests of Keystone a true Colorado steakhouse. We still have our composed dishes like we had on past menus with game and fish, but we have expanded the menu with more appetizers and steak offerings — this will allow us to stand out from the other restaurants in the area. The Keystone Ranch is a historical part of Keystone, and this will allow guests to come out and enjoy the beautiful setting of the Ranch house, with some of the best views in the county. You can come in and have some appetizers at the bar, enjoy a perfectly cooked steak or game, with dishes sourced from all around the country. And no meal would be complete without dessert by the fire on the couch in our living room.
SDN: What are some of your favorite dishes on the new menu?
SV: Each dish has its own unique qualities. I only source items that are of the best quality. Some of the ingredients I use, I’m the only one in Colorado using. I do like to showcase Colorado products also — like cheeses, honey, cured meats; even our ketchup is made in Denver.
One of my favorite dishes is the 18-hour beef short-rib confit. We cure the short rib with salt, sugar, spices and herbs and then slow cook it in duck fat for 18 hours. We then crisp it up and cover it with an ancho-prickly pear BBQ sauce. I guarantee no one else is doing this to their short ribs in the county.
Another one is the pumpkin and quinoa croquette for an appetizer. I use pumpkin puree imported from Italy, mix it with cooked quinoa, spices, bread it and fry them. We serve it with Broken Shovel goat cheese yogurt from Henderson, Colorado. Then crumble their Chevre on top, drizzle it with Grampas Gourmet Honey from Alamosa and dress some watercress with Med Cider Vinegar to make a very excellent winter appetizer.
I do have a special love for foie gras and try to make very unique dishes with it. This menu we sear a piece of foie, serve it on a black sesame seed spiced cracker with marcona almond butter. We reduce down pomegranate juice to make a glaze and serve it with a pickled Asian pear and pomegranate seeds. It’s then garnished with candied sage.
SDN: What inspires you when creating new dishes?
SV: I come up with some of my best ideas when I’m either on my mountain bike, out touring in the backcountry or sitting on the chairlift. I use very special vendors that specialize in what they do. These vendors are always sourcing new products, and I love when they send them to me. From here is when the inspiration begins, the brain starts thinking about what will go well with this product and how to showcase it on the menu. Playing with different cooking techniques and different ways to use it on the plate. Sometimes I’ll have one product done two or three different ways on the plate. Obviously, seasonality is what gets me excited. Foraged mushroom season, Olathe sweet corn, Rocky Ford cantaloupes, Palisade peaches and then pears — this all inspires the menus and plates.
SDN: What do you think is the best piece of advice you could give to your culinary students/aspiring chefs?
SV: My best advice would to be involved. Being a part of and knowing all parts of the kitchen makes you the most valuable cook in the kitchen. Be a team player and never be too good to do anything. We have a culture in our kitchen that we all work together, pushing each other for perfection with what we are doing. Lead by example — I wash dishes, scrub floors, take out the trash and work all stations. Strive to be the best cook in the kitchen no matter what station you’re working that night. Take advantage of what you can learn every day. The kitchen is a classroom, be the sponge and take it all in.
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