Arapahoe Basin Ski Area chefs aims to do more than lard skiers with calories
Special to the Daily
Arapahoe Basin Ski Area may not be the biggest or most well-known ski area, but what the mountain lacks in pizzazz, it more than makes up for in authenticity and character. The smaller nature of the ski area allows A-Basin staff to focus more on the individual experience. Head chef Chris Ryback is a big part of that.
Ryback is in the midst of his seventh season running the food and beverage department at the Basin. Since joining he has made it his duty to put their food in a league apart from standard ski area fare.
“When I came to the Basin I saw an opportunity to expand the food and beverage department because for a ski area, that’s one of the biggest growth opportunities there is,” explained Ryback.
Flipping the ski industry standard of basic cafeteria food was how the mountain was able to expand. Their growth has not been built with expensive hotels or new terrain, but with a simple focus on quality over quantity.
“It’s all about perception. I want them to say ‘Yeah it was $15, but damn was that a good burger,’ that’s what makes them more likely to come back and visit again,” he said.
Another reason customers keep coming back is because of the overall ambience at the mid-mountain chalet, Black Mountain Lodge. In addition to its fantastic view of 13,000-foot peaks, the lodge also offers up dishes like grilled salmon on rice, beef brisket and bacon sandwiches, not to mention the whole roasted pigs that are often on display.
It’s obvious that creativity and variety for the individual is a strong focus. A quaint, bamboo section of the base cafeteria is home to South Asian influenced meals like sesame infused salads, fresh stir fry and pot stickers.
“You can always have items like pizza and burgers, but it’s important to make meals for mom or someone who’s looking for something a little different or healthier,” Ryback said.
Ryback also brought fine dining to the Basin by creating Moonlight Dinners in his first season. Moonlight Dinners are full-course evening meals that are held at the mid-mountain Black Mountain Lodge.The dinners are now an A-Basin staple and have grown enormously since their inception.
“We started doing one a year, then we grew to three or four, and now it has become once a month event starting in December,” said Ryback.
The dinners sell out months in advance, and for good reason. Each meal is an elegant experience with a different theme from certain parts of the world. A recent Moonlight Dinner focused on Central American cuisine, with plates from El Salvador, Guatemala and Panama. Other nights have showcased French, Italian and Asian cuisine.
“The last Asian dinner, we rolled about 1,600 pieces of sushi just as an appetizer, and they were gone in minutes,” Ryback said.
Ryback takes the dinners seriously, and sometimes will prep for up to three days in advance before the event.
“It’s an opportunity to use my culinary background,” he said. “I always thought fine dining would be my future, but it’s not necessarily your bread and butter at a ski area. The Moonlight Dinners allow me to change this.”
There are two different versions of the Moonlight Dinners that exist. With Full Moon Dinners, guest can ride the chairlift up and down from the lodge, but Ryback says that more than 50 percent of guests still choose to snowshoe down. On certain randonee nights, however, no chairlift is run, and snowshoeing, skinning or hiking up is required.
“It’s all about providing a unique experience. I’ve never heard of anyone else that is doing this in the ski industry, and people appreciate that. All I heard the last night was, ‘We’ll be back,’ now the only problem on the customer side is hearing, ‘We can’t get in,’ which is a good problem for us to have.”
Although a great amount of the success is due to Ryback’s effort, he still retains his modesty, and stresses that he couldn’t have done it without the help of others. Arapahoe Basin management give him full leeway for creativity, and the smaller work environment breeds a positive work culture.
“My cooks, chefs, managers; everyone’s on board with this program, it’s a great place to work, and it’s truly a team effort that makes it happen.”
Sticking in the mind of the customer and providing a unique experience is a main objective at Arapahoe Basin, and it’s obvious that Ryback’s leadership has helped achieve this.
“If at the end of the day, you’re sitting at the lodge, and you start talking about the burger you had instead of the skiing, we’ve won,” Ryback said.
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