Daily Blender Exclusive: Chef Ryan Hardy

Chef Ryan Hardy
Chef Ryan Hardy

On a resplendent day in June, fresh off the plane from Denver and ready for a weekend of food, wine, and favorite chefs, I make my way to Aspen’s Montagna restaurant for the first interview on my schedule. Located in the heart of the posh Little Nell hotel, staff are hustling and bustling about while some of the bigger names in food (and food journalism) lounge lazily by the pool. Taking a seat on the nearby patio, Montagna’s executive chef, Ryan Hardy, makes his way toward me while shielding his eyes from the sun.

One of the busiest weekends of the year in the small town, Hardy is on the go today, preparing for the crown-jewel event of the weekend, Food & Wine’s Publisher’s Party atop the hills of Aspen. “We’re busy back there,” he explains, gesturing to the kitchen. “Whole roasting two farm pigs, nine goats, two lambs, and twenty-five ducks.”

Cool drinks are delivered to the table, and I begin with my line of questions. Despite the busy day, the chef seems comfortable with an afternoon interview. Lauded with recognition over the last few years, Hardy has appeared in multiple publications and on numerous media outlets, from the pages of luxury magazine Town & Country to NBC’s Today Show. I point out that we’ve actually met each other before, albeit briefly, outside of Avery Fisher Hall in New York City during the pre-ceremony arrivals of this year’s James Beard Foundation Awards.

“It’s so fun to be there for those things,” Ryan Hardy shares, reminiscing about his award nomination for Best Chef: Southwest. “I had an interesting moment this year, sitting in the crowd, I really started thinking about what it all means – who these people are, who you are within it. You really have to sit back in awe, and take it all in.”

“You know, when you get nominated, you’re just like, ‘Wow, that’s such an amazing thing.’ But then you get there, and you get to talk to all of these guys who are nominated, who win, like Michael [Schwartz]. You talk to them, and they all say, ‘Wow, I don’t know what this means,’ you know? ‘I just never thought I’d win this award. I just cook.’”

He takes the recognition in stride, however. “Those things are awesome as long as you understand that it’s about making those friends, making those contacts. I think some people take [the awards] a little too seriously.”

“Awards are exactly that – they’re for achievement. You work your butt off, and maybe you get there someday. But it’s also a club. It’s the kind of thing where the people who are most deserving don’t necessarily always get in, and sometimes, the people who don’t deserve it, do get in. It is what it is.”

In the Heart of Colorado

A transplant to the area, Hardy has found a home in the Aspen valley, relishing all that the area provides. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful area. I’ve lived all over the country, and I love so many areas that are near and dear to my heart,” he comments, watching the ski lift roll up the mountain behind the hotel. “But Colorado is one of those magical places that has everything. Really great restaurants, great wine guys, great producers, great diners. People in Colorado, especially in the key areas, seem to be really well traveled. They’re the kind of people you want in your restaurant.”

The demographic of restaurant guests seems to ebb and flow with the seasons as well. I ask about differences in the restaurant’s winter and summer menus. “The summer crowd is more fun, more relaxed,” he says, surrounded by poolside loungers and sun-filled revelry. “It’s easier to drive in from Denver. We get a lot of daytrippers, and Aspen is about a third less expensive during the summertime. The venue changes [with the seasons] – you’re no longer inside by the fireplace with darker lighting. You’re outside or enjoying your meal with the windows open. In the wintertime, it’s a much more expensive clientele. They really want the caviar, they really want the truffles. They want big, expensive things. In the summertime, it’s more family-oriented.”

In addition to managing the kitchen at The Little Nell, Ryan Hardy also maintains a fifteen-acre working farm in nearby Crawford. Centered in organics, the Rendezvous Farm has created a new level of education and ingenuity in the kitchen, much to the chef’s delight.

We utilize so much locally – about 65-75% of our produce comes from local farms, mostly from Rendezvous. Of course, the reason it’s not 100% is because of the citrus, strawberries, etc. We’re a hotel – we have to have those things,” he points out. “At first, when we began the farm four years ago, it was hard to grow things. We were trying desperately to produce anything, and the chefs tried to be nice about it. But as it has become more successful, the team has become more successful. My line cooks and my sous chefs become so inspired by the produce that is delivered from the farm, that they want to cook.”

Hardy’s kitchen team has much more involvement with the farm’s production process than just the end product. “We take people out in the fall and the spring,” he explains. “We set staff up with internships at the farm for four to eight weeks where they can live on the farm, take care of the pigs and sheep, grow the artichokes and whatnot.”

“It’s funny – we have a staff member who went to work at the farm this spring, and his job was to take care of the 1000 chickens we have on the farm. His chore was to collect the eggs and then every few days, hand wash every single egg. When the internship was over, he came back to the kitchen, and announces, ‘If anybody here overcooks an egg, I’m gonna kill ‘em.’”

He laughs, beaming with pride about the winning farm-to-fork connection he’s worked so hard to build during his tenure at the Montagna. He notes that it is, indeed, the center of what he’s developed with the restaurant, creating a legacy of locally-driven, seasonal cuisine.

“It’s a big influence on everything we do.”

~Jennifer Heigl

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