In the Kitchen with Aspen's Culinary Boon: Latino Sous-Chefs

Erica Robbie | May 15, 2019 | People

Many of Aspen’s star restaurants have secret weapons as sous-chefs, and they come from Latin America.

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Cesar Vazquez left Martínez de la Torre, Mexico, at 18 and now works at Cache Cache, where he prepares dishes like this lamb chops and roasted vegetables.

When Cesar Vazquez started out in the Aspen restaurant industry, he worked three jobs from early morning to late night, bussing to and from the midvalley and squeezing in a few hours of sleep between shifts. “My friends recommended I get a car because I could sleep more,” says Vazquez. “I was definitely tired, and the money was OK.”

Today, Vazquez, pours all of his energy into his sole position as sous-chef at one of Aspen’s most prominent restaurants, with a commute that spans roughly eight seconds—he lives directly above Cache Cache in a beautiful studio in the heart of downtown.

A native of Martínez de la Torre, Mexico, Vazquez left his hometown and his family for the Roaring Fork Valley at 18. His journey up the culinary ranks is that of sheer hard work, ambition, perseverance and passion, and he is among a notable contingent of Latino and Hispanic kitchen workers who share similar stories—bringing dedication and zest to many of Aspen’s most reputable restaurants.

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From top: Oscar Ibarra, who is a junior sous-chef at Ajax Tavern; short ribs with hominy risotto at Ajax Tavern.

Oscar Ibarra and Cesar Gonzalez relocated to the valley in December 2015 as part of a larger workforce from Mexico hired by The Little Nell. As entry-level cooks at the five-star hotel, Ibarra and Gonzalez also paid their dues throughout their early years, prepping food, covering various shifts and manning the buffet, progressing from one station to the next.

In an old-school fashion, both chefs started out at the bottom and worked their way up to the top, says The Little Nell executive chef Matt Zubrod, who promoted Gonzalez to sous-chef at element 47 and Ibarra to junior sous-chef at Ajax Tavern. “Their work ethic is really what got them to where they are today,” Zubrod says. “It’s an attribute either to their families or the school they went to or the places they’ve worked, but we got lucky.”

Once promoted, Gonzalez was running between restaurant jobs at The Little Nell and Bamboo Bear and clocking in 14-hour days. Later that year, he moved into a three-bedroom house he shared with 14 people who were also from Mexico.

“It was a big house, but still,” Gonzalez says with a laugh. “You have no privacy, but the good thing is, I was always working.”

Throughout that summer of 2016, Gonzalez had one day off. “It was tiring,” he admits, “but you get used to it.”

For many chefs, being in the kitchen is as much a labor of love as it is a livelihood. Ibarra began by observing and eventually aiding his grandmother in the kitchen, rinsing beans and husking corn, as early as age 7. “It was interesting because in my home [region], the person who cooks at home is the mom,” Ibarra says, “but my mom doesn’t know how to cook at all.”

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From top: Cesar Gonzalez in the kitchen at The Little Nell; foie gras torchon with mezcal salt from element 47.

Out of necessity and a genuine interest in cooking, Ibarra increasingly spent more time in the kitchen. By age 13, he single-handedly “ran the show,” preparing meals for his whole family. From that point, “I never wanted to study anything else,” he says. “It was just that.”

Gonzalez echoes this sentiment, although his parents were adamantly against him studying to become a chef. “They said I would starve to death,” he says.

Learning to overcome doubt—be it from a family member, mentor or oneself—resonates with each chef’s narrative. “I almost quit culinary school because a teacher told me, ‘Maybe you’re not cut out for this,’” Gonzalez recalls. “I didn’t quit because I’m the type of person who doesn’t want to give up on something. That actually motivated me to become even better.” Vazquez can be his own biggest skeptic; those close to him encourage him to be more confident.

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Jaz Calderon at Hao House

For Jaz Calderon, every role he assumes reflects his ability to show others that he not only belongs in the kitchen, but that he deserves to be there. Calderon is an American sushi chef of Puerto Rican descent who was born without the sense of smell. Although he started rolling sushi in restaurants at 15, Calderon was always striving to prove himself to the esteemed traditional Japanese chefs who “didn’t think that I (was) deserving,” he says.

“If I did something wrong, they would grab the roll off my board, throw it in the trash (and) tell me to do it again,” Calderon says. One chef would even smack his knuckles with the flat edge of the knife.

Calderon, who worked most recently as the sushi chef at the popular Hao House pop-up in Aspen last winter, also is accustomed to blind taste-tests from chefs who question his culinary skills because he cannot smell.

One Aspen restaurant never allowed Calderon the chance to prove himself: Matsuhisa (of the famed Nobu group) hired Calderon as a sushi chef at 18, only to fire him on the spot upon learning he lacks the ability to smell.

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From top: Bulgogi, which is shaved pork in a spicy Korean chile sauce with bibb lettuce; smashed cucumber in a ginger vinaigrette from Hao House.

Chalking up the restaurant business as a “sink or swim” environment, Calderon persevered, continuing to roll sushi and help run a number of successful establishments in Aspen and beyond.

He believes all of his experiences within—or being rejected from—the kitchen have shaped him into the chef he is today.

“Jaz was a great right hand for the season (with a) great attitude and intuition,” says Aspen chef David Wang, who led the kitchen at Hao House. “We were able to work through entire two- to three-hour rushes with only a few words with each other.”

Calderon’s recipe for success in the kitchen is sometimes as simple as: “Shut up and pay attention. If you keep your mouth shut, you can learn a lot real fast.”

While the atmosphere varies across kitchens—Ibarra jokes with his staff to promote a positive energy—chefs know how to handle the pressure like pros, no matter the scenario.

“I love the stress,” Gonzalez confesses. “It’s more like an adrenaline rush.” Some even find it enjoyable. Ibarra says, “Stress doesn’t affect me. ... I try to make (the vibe) fun.”

As Cache Cache chef du cuisine Chris Lanter points out: Thriving in the kitchen requires a certain type of personality. “The restaurant business is a chaotic business, and it’s not perfect. There’s always going to be hiccups,” says Lanter, who also is a part owner of Cache Cache. “There’s a lot of bobbing and weaving and taking the punches, and you can’t freak out—especially when you’re a leader. You’ve got to be cool and handle it appropriately and lead by example.”

Lanter promoted Vazquez to his post this summer in part because he is respected, professional, communicates well and possesses “the temperament of a sous-chef. He’s also extremely hardworking and can execute our fine dining menus perfectly,” notes Lanter.

Vazquez learned about hard work early on, plucking citrus fruits from bushes in the blistering Mexican sun as soon as he was a teenager. Although it was taxing, and temperatures easily exceeded 100 degrees, Vazquez appreciated the experience because of all that he learned.

This appetite to continue learning is prevalent among chefs on the fast track. “Every kitchen I walk into is a new experience,” explains Calderon. “And there’s always something you can take from it and bring to the next place.” Since he prepared salads at his first restaurant job in Aspen a decade ago, Vazquez still looks at the person next to him and thinks: “One day, I’m going to do that. And I want to keep learning the best from the best.”

As with his peers, Vazquez conveys an immense sense of gratitude toward the chefs and people who have mentored and supported him along the way.

Ultimately, this appreciation translates to loyalty. Asked about his interests outside the upscale French-American bistro, Vazquez replies, “Cache Cache is my priority.”

For each of the men, earning the chance to provide creative direction on a menu or creating their own dish is among the greatest rewards—and fusing an element of their culture is the cherry on top.

This summer, Ajax Tavern launches a Taco Tuesday special, which Ibarra will help dream up and execute each week. And downstairs, Gonzalez will craft his consentidos for element 47’s summer menu—the term in his hometown for an indulgent taco, as the word translates directly to “spoiled”—using homemade, wagyu fat-infused tortillas.

“There’s a lot of Latino people in the kitchen; kitchens are full of Latinos: the dishwashers, bus (staff), cooks, cleans,” Ibarra says. “I’m proud to represent the Latino people in my area.”



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Photography by: Ross Daniels Photography