Over the last five years, overnight delivery services have revolutionized the way chefs cook. Larry Forgione, one of the fathers of contemporary American cooking, says in his new book, An American Place, that overnight air is "the one thing that really changed my life.... Geographic boundaries and time constrictions ceased to exist. Local went national. And what was ripe in Georgia or fresh-caught in Cape Cod on a Tuesday afternoon could be on my menu in New York City Wednesday night."
If overnight air deliveries could make that much of a difference to a chef in Manhattan, imagine what they do for his colleagues in Aspen, at an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet, 1,000 miles from the nearest coast, 162 miles (and two treacherous mountain passes) from the closest large city, with an average annual snowfall of 146 inches. For top chefs at Aspen's justly renowned restaurants--among them Dale, George Mahaffey of The Restaurant at The Little Nell, and Nick Morfogen of Ajax Tavern--Federal Express, UPS, United Express and their competitors are a veritable lifeline.
"SAGE? NOT TODAY."
All three chefs came to Aspen from far less isolated venues: Dale, 38, one of food & wine's Best New Chefs for 1995, had cooked at New York's Le Cirque; Mahaffey, 44, at the Bel-Air in Los Angeles; and Morfogen, 30, at Napa's Tra Vigne. In Aspen they found high-quality beef and lamb and, during the summer months, fruits and vegetables. But fish has to be brought in, and so do rabbit, foie gras, quail, mushrooms, truffles, venison, wild boar, escargots and, especially during the winter, organically grown herbs and vegetables.
Specialty ingredients are in short supply. Morfogen says the local wholesaler's attitude was, " 'If you don't have sage today, it's okay; you'll have it tomorrow.' Well, it's not okay with me. I'm pretty accustomed to perfect produce." Mahaffey recalls that it took a year to convince his local purveyor that Goldbar zucchini and yellow crookneck squash were not the same. Dale, who seems to have adopted the frontier mentality, solved part of his problem by contracting with a gardener to plant seven acres in organic produce and an herb greenhouse on Buttermilk Mountain; Dale also harvests wild watercress.
The three chefs order most of their food through Denver wholesalers, who either haul supplies up Interstate 70--"Our provisions are coming over two mountain passes in the most ungodly weather you've ever seen," says Mahaffey--or load it into the cargo bays of planes bound for Aspen's Sardy airport, which can accommodate only small jet aircraft. At times the chefs have even gone out to the airport themselves to pick up much-needed deliveries. But regular air freight "is always a bit of a risk," says Dale because passengers, baggage and ski equipment are given priority. "I've had 100 pounds of lamb, foie gras and venison waiting for me on the tarmac in Denver while I was rummaging through my walk-in, looking for something to cook."
That's why for things they need now, and things that need to be fresh, Aspen chefs deal directly with their favorite suppliers, distance be damned, and turn to overnight airborne delivery services to get the goods to the restaurant door.
Mahaffey, for example, orders organic greens from Kenter Canyon Farms outside Los Angeles. Morfogen gets organic mesclun from Forni Brown Gardens in the Napa Valley as often as three times a week during the winter. "It's out there in the field growing right now," says Forni Brown's Barney Welsh, speaking from the firm's California headquarters. "We'll pick salad for people today, and they'll have it for lunch at Ajax tomorrow."
PACKED TO PERFECTION
To make sure that Morfogen's greens are as pristine as those delivered to local customers like Jeremiah Tower of Stars, Forni Brown has devised an elaborate packing process: The lettuces are pulled from the ground with a small amount of root attached, put into baskets and floated in water, pulled out of their bath, chilled to 46 degrees and packed in a plastic-lined case. Then Forni Brown hands the greens over to a FedEx driver, and the lettuces begin their land-and- air journey to Aspen.
Packaging is especially important when using overnight services, says Paul Packer of Denver's Northeast Seafood, because their trucks and warehouses are not refrigerated. Packer's sea bass arrive in a nest of boxes: double-waxed corrugated cardboard over Styrofoam filled with ice and fish. Randee Disraeli of Santa Barbara's Kanaloa Seafood ships to Renaissance, Ajax and The Little Nell. She won't reveal just how the fresh shrimp and Dover sole are packed--"That's one of our secrets"--but the process involves insulated Mylar bags and dry gel or wet ice, depending on the fish. "In the last 10 years [overnight delivery] has become the trend in the food industry," says Disraeli, who jets seafood to restaurants throughout the United States.
All this is expensive. After paying top dollar for the highest quality ingredients, the chefs have to pay a premium for shipping them: whereas regular airfreight runs from 30 cents to 50 cents a pound, the overnight services charge as much as $1.50 a pound. "It adds up, but it's worth it," says Morfogen. "And in Aspen, I can charge."
Even with overnight delivery, being a chef in Aspen requires improvisation. As Mahaffey points out, in New York or L.A., the fish truck might arrive as often as twice a day, six days a week. Not so in Aspen. So the Aspenites have become experts in what Dale calls "psychic ordering," trying to figure out ahead of time if customers will pick the tuna or the halibut over the next few days. All three chefs update their menus frequently, sometimes in the middle of dinner, to accommodate the state of their larders and cases of rabbit or wild boar that have gone astray. (Recipes for three menus follow.)
And when even FedEx fails, there's neighborliness: Aspen chefs have set up a kind of mutual-aid society. If a delivery of tuna doesn't make it or a large party cleans out the caviar, a call will be made and a runner dispatched. "I can't see that happening in too many other places," says Dale.
Amy Virshup is a freelance writer living in New York City.