Off the Slopes in Steamboat Springs

Off the Slopes in Steamboat Springs
New York Times, February 12, 2015

Steamboat Springs used to be a snow globe filled with champagne powder snow, cowboys and gold miners. That's changing through a community renaissance sparked by chefs, restaurateurs, entrepreneurs and farmers who make the Yampa Valley their home.

The town is creating parks and has plans to repurpose buildings along the main drag by the Yampa River, hoping to make it a destination. The new Steamboat is an urban, walkable oasis where skiing is just a bus ride away. You can mountain bike out your front door and park that bike in front of restaurants catering to sophisticated palates.

Since last spring, several restaurants have opened downtown; high- and low-end establishments with surprisingly good wine lists. Also recently opened are two breweries and a pub that serves 28 beers on tap from around the state. A local foraging and food purveyor scene has even cropped up, growing greenhouse vegetables for chefs and also selling them at farm stands.

All of this has happened in the heart of hunting, ranching and very unhip Routt County, where signs say "Hunters Welcome" and fatigue-clad folks stroll down Lincoln Avenue, Steamboat's principal thoroughfare, during hunting season.

A salad of winter beets, raw herbs and vegetables from Bistro C.V., which opened in 2008 and started the local food revolution. Credit Morgan Rachel Levy for The New York Times
When Brian and Katy Vaughn opened Bistro C.V. in 2008, it signaled the beginning of the homegrown revolution. Mr. Vaughn, now 37, started in Steamboat as a line cook at 23 and eventually worked with Norman Van Aken, the influential Miami chef and restaurateur, before returning to Steamboat to raise a family. His food, inspired by Mr. Van Aken's idea of elevating local ingredients into a cuisine, creates distinctive Rocky Mountain fare. For example, the bistro serves elk loin on a bed of artisanal polenta, and its chicken with a cauliflower-saffron puree is embellished by local greens and black garlic. Foragers bring the bistro mushrooms, spruce tips and wild sorrel.

The Vaughns have also opened Low, with Southern-infused down-home meals using many local products, including Colorado whiskey barrels to age their cocktails.

Sitting at a table overlooking the Yampa at E3 Chophouse, as a live band plays bluegrass and the bar filled with locals in chic outerwear, it's possible to feel the changes in the thin mountain air. The town has long been a bit bifurcated, with most of the action on the ski hill. But with residents like Chris Paoli, a real estate agent, that focus is changing.

"People are coming to Steamboat for the town as much as for the ski hill," Mr. Paoli said.

The deck and fire pit at Aurum, which opened last May. Credit Morgan Rachel Levy for The New York Times
The new restaurants created a shift in the culture of Steamboat, fueled by the intensity of savvy young entrepreneurs. Terry Huffington of Elkstone Farm works with many local restaurateurs including Mr. Vaughn, who produces menus that vary with the availability of Elkstone produce.

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story
"He's so smart, he sees that being local is good business even when you can't get the same volume of produce from me that you could from a distributor," Ms. Huffington said.

In her greenhouse and orchard, she grows microgreens and baby vegetables and sells what does not go to restaurants at her farmstand. When she built the greenhouse in 2009, Ms. Huffington planned on growing strawberries where they had once flourished. Yet her interest in sustainable agriculture has since created an unusual farm and orchard known for jams, pretzels and even Kaffir lime leaves.

Elkstone Farm pretzels caught the taste buds of Megan Gray Stromberg, a local food and beverage entrepreneur. Raised in a ski country family, she graduated from the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University and worked as the food and beverage director at the St. Regis hotel in Atlanta before coming home to open the Barley with her husband, Chris Stromberg, in 2014. The Barley, a beer garden and bar food destination with 28 taps of Colorado brew, now uses Elkstone Farms pretzels in its Whiskey I.P.A. fondue, along with local whiskey and beer.

This movement in Steamboat has had the added benefit of strengthening the bonds of community. Phil Armstrong was surprised to find so many passionate and like-minded entrepreneurs last May when he opened Aurum, featuring Chase Wilbanks's innovative but decidedly American flavor combinations. Aurum also has its own vineyard at Sutcliffe Vineyards.

"This is a real community, more than any other ski town I know and I've lived in most of them," Mr. Armstrong said. His restaurant, with a quiet dining area but a boisterous bar, serves dishes like lightly smoked tuna with a yuzu coconut sauce and a house-made pickled cucumber that makes one forget about cowboy boots altogether.