Aspen’s homegrown James Beard Award semifinalist finds inspiration in the forest
It’s almost 4 p.m. in the kitchen at Bosq, and Chef C. Barclay Dodge is preparing Colorado striped bass for the night’s tasting menu with the ease of a hot knife through butter. The craftsmanship, “working with your hands,” is part of what he loves about the culinary profession he’s pursued for more than 30 years.
“Then secondly, the artists can come into play,” Dodge said. “And I love the teamwork, and I love the drama and the excitement. I just love the industry so much, working with food, working with farmers, like everything that just pulls it all together.”
The industry is showing that it loves Dodge back, too: Earlier this year, he was named a James Beard Award semifinalist for “Best Chef” in the “Mountain” division, which includes Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.
The James Beard Foundation will release the list of finalists on Wednesday for the “Best Chef: Mountain” awards and nearly two dozen other categories. There are usually five or six finalists in each “Best Chef” regional category who are eligible to win their division’s award.
Aspen has a long history of winners and nominees for the honors known as the “Oscars of the food world,” from a regional “Best Chef” win for the Little Nell’s George Mahaffey in 1997 to a semifinalist nod to Mawa McQueen in last year’s “Best Chef: Mountain” competition.
“We've always been on the map for that,” Dodge said. “But it definitely helps strengthen [Aspen’s culinary reputation.] People love coming to this town to wine and dine.”
At Bosq, Dodge is wining and dining them with some ingredients so local he often picked them himself or knows the farmer who did. He’s built a reputation for his foraging habits and works with farms like Sustainable Settings outside of Carbondale for other ingredients.
“This is my hometown, and I just love my environment, and that's what inspires this restaurant is the woods around us,” Dodge said.
Dodge has long been known for his evolving and seasonal fine dining menus, which change so often employees joke that the chef invents dishes faster than they can learn them.
Natalie Hayden, the assistant general manager and a server at Bosq, said that spirit of innovation places Dodge on par with chefs who have already won James Beard Awards.
“I've been lucky enough, I should say, to work with several James Beard chefs throughout my career ... and he is the only chef that I've met in this area that is that caliber, as far as the creativity and the constant ever changing,” Hayden said. “And it's just — it's a constant evolution here.”
Hayden isn’t surprised that Dodge was named a semifinalist for this year’s James Beard Awards.
“I feel like this is something that we all knew whether or not it was recognized,” she said. “We all knew this, as far as his skill level and the caliber of restaurant that we were working in, but I think that it's more for others to see and realize this hidden gem in Aspen.”
Nick Heileman, the general manager and sommelier here, agrees.
“There's a little bit of sentiment that it's been a long time coming,” Heileman said. “Barclay has been cooking food this fantastic and creative and delicious for a really long time. It is nice to get the recognition for sure, but almost nothing has changed.”
Nothing has changed culturally or philosophically, anyways, likely to the relief of the staff.
Employees like Heileman say Bosq is unlike some of its fine dining peers that have reputations for withering intensity in the kitchen.
“There's an expectation of excellence here, but there's also — there's an easy way to let the ambition kind of lose control, … [where] you lose sight of what you're actually doing,” Heileman said.
That’s not the case at Bosq, he said.
“Yes, we do have high expectations, like those places do, but we still, you know, we have to enjoy what we're doing,” Heileman said.
Dodge takes pride in his current team, and attributes a “huge” part of his success at the 7-year-old Bosq to the restaurant’s staff.
Past employees, he says, have moved from the kitchen at Bosq to James Beard Award winning restaurants like the French Laundry in California, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York and Frasca in Boulder.
Dodge refuses, though, to draw any comparisons between his work and what’s happening at those acclaimed institutions, all of which have already won James Beard awards.
“I can’t toot my horn like that,” he said.
Hayden, meanwhile, is a lot more willing to sing his high praises.
“I think that that's what makes Bosq, Bosq is that chef is so humble,” she said. “And that sometimes we have to remind him that he is as amazing as he is.”
Dodge is as determined to stay on the path as he is humble. He grew up in Aspen, and started working in restaurants here when he was still a teenager. More than three decades later, he’s still at it — and back in his hometown to boot.
“I feel like I decided to be a chef and I never changed my mind,” Dodge said. “There's been no question.”
Editor's note: The James Beard Foundation announced the list of finalists on March 29. Though Dodge didn't end up on the shortlist, another Colorado chef did: Michael Diaz de Leon, the chef at BRUTØ in Denver, is one of five nominees still in the running for the "Best Chef" award in the Mountain region.