Chef Wade Eybel talks food, family and the mountain lifestyle
By Krista Driscoll, Photography by Brent Bingham
If you want some insight into Wade Eybel, the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek executive chef, look at his burger. It starts with Colorado Meat Co. grassfed, naturally raised beef, sourced within a 100-mile radius of Avon. The pork belly bacon comes from pigs raised by a man named Tom Walsh in Meeker, and the lettuce from Robert Anthony’s Buttercrunch Farm in Eagle.
Stacked with aged white cheddar, crispy onion fritz and special sauce on a house-made brioche bun, this is The Local Burger. It smacks of the mountains and provides a lens for viewing Chef Eybel’s culinary vision: wood-fired, noseto- tail Colorado cuisine.
“It’s a heck of a lot cheaper for me to buy lettuce from the Central Valley of California or pigs from Iowa or beef from Nebraska,” he says, “but it’s not the direction that food has gone, it’s not the type of operation we’re trying to run here, it’s not what makes me happy at the end of the day.”
That’s because Eybel knows he’s doing more than just selling food; he’s trafficking in a lifestyle, re-telling the story again and again of the mountain culture that first got him hooked nearly two decades ago.
CHASING A LIFESTYLE
A self-described ski bum since the age of 21, Eybel can trace his career trajectory to one pivotal excursion.
“I had a pretty classic coming-of-age story,” says the chef. “Taking a road trip in college with a good friend of mine out west, doing the western tour over summer break — bumming around in the parks and cities of Colorado, Utah and Montana — I realized this was the type of lifestyle I wanted to pursue.”
Eybel was studying economics at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Having worked in kitchens since he was 15, he had picked up a job at a restaurant with the sole purpose of paying the rent, but after his prophetic road trip, he began to see the service industry as a vehicle to carry him west.
After graduating in 2003, he relocated to Durango, where he continued to work in kitchens, restaurants and bars close to the ski hill. His Muir-esque prescription for life moved him from there to Whitefish, Montana, and then to the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe, where he stepped his way up to executive sous chef.
“You go to college to learn how to learn,” he says. “In culinary, I was a sponge at every place I worked. I had a lot of mentors, a lot of studying and training on my own.”
Eybel’s coursework in economics was a natural accompaniment to his chosen career, helping him understand how business worked and how to make informed decisions about the vendors from whom he bought, the food he created and the people he hired.
“We have relationships that we build with our purveyors, deep relationships we build with the people we work with and those who work for us,” Eybel says. “These relationships are extremely rewarding and require a lot of work: You get out of it what you put into it.”
BUILDING A FAMILY
Eybel has put in the time: He spent his first six months in Beaver Creek studying his guests and learning their needs, followed by a solid year of hiring and training a team.
“At peak season here, I’ve got 70 people that I’m responsible for,” he says. “I hire all of them, I know all of them, I know all their backgrounds. Some have worked for me for years and years.
“It’s really very rewarding to bring people’s careers from the entry level, which is where I started, to provide mentorship to young men and women, not only about food and cooking and this profession, but about life and life skills.”
Positive team dynamics contribute to increased guest satisfaction in the long run, Eybel says, and that starts with building empathy and accountability amongst a team of craftsmen claiming roots from Key West to California, the East Coast to Hawaii.
“I preach a family atmosphere here that anybody can relate to,” he says. “One thing almost all of us have in common is some semblance of family. If we can create those same feelings here at the workplace, we’re tapping into a universal emotion that relates to everybody.”
KITCHEN TO TABLE
It took two-and-a-half years to distill all those creative passions and artistic expressions into a cohesive philosophy and feeling of kinship in the kitchen, but now Eybel’s team has the freedom to challenge one another and take risks without fear of failure.
“I see myself as a head coach of a sports team,” he says. “I don’t cook nearly as much as I used to, just like a football coach doesn’t run the plays on the field, but he provides the mentorship for his players, allows them to show up and be successful every day.”
Eybel takes his role as an ambassador of the mountain lifestyle seriously, whether he’s tutoring a line cook or building the perfect burger.
“It’s so hard to make it 15 or 20 years in a ski town in today’s demographics, today’s day and age of real estate prices and pay scales in the industries that support these communities,” Eybel says. “I feel extremely lucky to have carved out a niche for me and my family in a ski town and I feel fortunate to have done that. I can’t say ‘anybody can do it.’ I busted my ass for this.”
“ONE THING ALMOST ALL OF US HAVE IN COMMON IS SOME SEMBLANCE OF FAMILY. IF WE CAN CREATE THOSE SAME FEELINGS HERE AT THE WORKPLACE , WE’R E TAPPI NG INTO A UNIVERSAL EMOTION THAT RELATES TO EVERYBODY.”