Chef Martin Oswald peels the lid off a plastic pint container of black dust and urges me to taste a pinch. I roll the zesty granules across my tongue, which pop like little citrus sparks.
“Fermented Persian lime,” he says. “It’s a different profile of acidity. Amazing, right?”
It’s Friday afternoon and we’re in the storage room beneath Pyramid Bistro, the nutritarian restaurant Oswald opened in Aspen in 2010. Oswald will use many pinches — 3 pounds’ worth — of this dried, pulverized garnish next weekend. On Sept. 3-5, Oswald will lead a team of about 150 catering staff to feed some 6,000 people in nine hours over three days at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience, the annual music festival that began in 1995. For the past 22 years, Oswald has catered the event’s Patron/VIP Tent, where he is charged with building “layers and layers of flavor.”
As a pairing with marquee-name concert performances, the JAS Labor Day Experience has become a culinary destination. The Patron Tent sends out small composed plates from 14 live cooking stations (grills, woks, an outdoor pizza oven); displays of meats, seafood, pasta, and international dishes; a chilled Mediterranean spread of cheese, charcuterie, and salads; and a seemingly endless dessert table. Each evening has its own unique menu.
Today Oswald is blending a massive batch of burger seasoning: kosher salt, garlic powder, onion powder, “a good amount” of cayenne and freshly toasted and ground coriander seed and black pepper. Brandishing a gallon jug of peppercorns in one fist, Oswald declares that he’ll need two of these, actually.
“When I cook large quantities — in our case, 1,600 burgers, in addition to steak, salmon, sea bass, etc. — to get more consistency on the flavor profile, I make my own spice blends,” he explains. Oswald’s steak seasoning includes both fine- and coarse-ground green peppercorns, red peppercorns, black Tellicherry peppercorns. In all, Oswald will use about 30 pounds of dried spices for the event: black cardamom, kaffir lime leaf, sumac, guajillo chiles, “Ottoman spice,” za’atar, among dozens others. (See “JAS Food By the Numbers.’)
As anyone who has faced the Patron Tent’s colorful smorgasbord can attest: the sheer variety of cuisine is mind-boggling. The team will pump out an estimated 10,000 plates of food per night, making the JAS Labor Day Experience the largest unified effort among valley chefs. Oswald’s challenge: How to cook all of this food so it tastes fresh for everybody — and safely?
The answer, of course, is many months of rigorous planning. Oswald fans out a series of at least 10 maps and a stack of checklists: his master “formula.”
“Every square inch is designed,” he says of three main kitchen tents, including one measuring 30-by-40-feet. Tables, garbage bins, and handwashing station; electricity and water lines; dozens of fire extinguishers — all have a precise location. “Where’s the blender gonna get plugged in? Exactly (at spot) 205. Ice: who’s getting it? Where’s it coming from?”
Thirty pages of recipes will be posted, along with the maps, for cooks on Friday. Oswald credits his 17-year-old son, Gus — involved since age 14—for creating a new color-coding system this year to ensure everyone is on the same page, literally; John “JD” Delay for fine-tuning event logistics; chefs Rob McClanahan and Jeff Spiroff for working with the state health department to implement enhanced sanitation under strict COVID-19 protocols, such as top-to-bottom station cleaning every three hours. Director of operations Cat Leonaitis acts as liaison to local fire departments, Bethel Party Rentals, Denver’s Department of Public Health, and special teams that handle bear-proofing, trash-removal, potable water, and security.
Oswald — who has opened six restaurants throughout his career, including Syzygy and Ute City in Aspen and mix6 in Snowmass Base Village, and has catered the annual Aspen Institute Gala for up to 2,000 guests — likens the effort to building two full restaurant kitchens every September. A portion of the 50 chefs fly in from around the country to participate in this adrenaline-fueled culinary extravaganza. Longtime local Fabio Bianchi will manage a staff of eight front-of-house managers and 70 servers this year. Imagine, 10 dishwashers!
“It’s the whole valley of chefs coming together, once a year, working shoulder-to-shoulder and exchanging ideas,” says Oswald, who demonstrates 100 or more dishes. His menus are “just guides,” though, which allows the plating chefs to add flourish.
“We have this wonderful freedom to be creative,” says pastry chef Chrissada Creger, here from Virginia at Pyramid Bistro to prep more than 10 different daily desserts. Formerly pastry supervisor at the Aspen Meadows Resort, Creger is celebrating her fifth JAS (the 2020 fest was postponed and rescheduled for this year).
“Working the event is high-volume, fast-paced, go, go, go,” she continues. “Our Champagne sabayon sauce we’ll be hand-whisking! It has to be well-planned because it’s so intense. I wouldn’t come back if I didn’t love it.”
New this year: Latin food stations, overseen by 10-year Pyramid Bistro sous chef and JAS chef Orlando Perez. A native of El Salvador, Perez is managing a team of women from his family who will form 1,000 pork-and-cheese pupusas by hand for Friday service; steak arrachera with guajillo chile sauce on Saturday; and ancho-chile chicken enchiladas on Sunday.
“These are mom recipes, home recipes,” Perez enthuses. “This is the first time — at one of the biggest events in this valley — that we are offering our food, Salvadoran style. I’m feeling excited!”
The JAS Labor Day Experience began with multiple buffet lines when it launched on Coney Glade in 1995. But because the audience mushroomed so quickly over the years, cooking stations serving small plates of hot food were added to offer higher quality cuisine faster and fresher.
“Rather than one big meal, it became more of a grazing experience, akin to the tastings at the Food & Wine (Classic in Aspen),” explains JAS president and CEO Jim Horowitz. “Chef Martin Oswald and team have done an unbelievable job at designing delicious menus. Along with the world-class music talent, JAS has taken its VIP food experience to the next level. It has become a selling point.” (It’s thanks to individual donors, fêted at the Patron Tent, that a comparatively miniscule festival venue like Snowmass draws performers like Jimmy Buffet and Sheryl Crow.)
Next Monday morning, Oswald will take a cue from Kendall Lucy, former executive chef of Whole Foods Market, and compose one final list: everything that went wrong this weekend. All kinds of snafus have made that list: “We ran out of bread; 250 pounds of meat was not enough; people wanted more clarification on gluten-free. We’ve had the trailer break down and had to move 800 cases of food! Twice we had Shamrock (Foods) replace the 2,000-pound condenser (in the refrigerated truck).”
Before he puts every 2021 mistake to paper, though, the music will stop. Oswald will take a moment alone to chill—in the cavernous walk-in cooler.
“When I stand (there), I think: Did they really eat that much food?” he quips. “The entire 48-foot trailer is wiped out!”
Within 72 hours, that rig will be scrubbed, sanitized and sent out of town. Next September it will be back, full again.