That’s So Classic!
Brian Ackerman of Splendido at the Chateau elevates the classics but keeps them fun
Brian Ackerman’s childhood didn’t exactly scream “destined to become a culinary powerhouse.” As it happened, he got lost in an unexpected adventure.
“It was one of those homes where Monday was spaghetti, Tuesday was lasagna —just all-American stuff,” says the chef-owner of Splendido at the Chateau in Beaver Creek, one of the best fine-dining experiences in the valley. Certainly one of the most consistent.
But he didn’t grow up cooking or thinking much about it. After graduating from high school he headed off to the University of Missouri — Mizzou — where he dutifully began pursuing a business degree, and took a job in a restaurant. Sometimes it’s those little decisions that end up being so consequential. The ball just started rolling, one restaurant leading to the next, then the Culinary Institute of America, and more restaurants — really good ones. The sort where the chef takes you to France for research and experience, and you soak it all up.
Ackerman loved cooking, and proved to have the disposition for it. In those days, hazing new chefs was par for the course, and it went on all day long. It was expected. He laughs at how different it is now, certainly in his kitchen at Splendido but across the industry too. “I haven’t yelled at anyone in the kitchen in probably seven years,” he says. “I’ve raised my voice, but it’s not like it used to be. You just can’t. It’s not a good work environment. And it’s not the way to get stuff out of people anymore. Back in the day, that was a driving factor. If I got something thrown on me, I’d work faster. Now, somebody gets something thrown on them — and they’re gone. ‘See you later. I quit.’”
After working on the East Coast for a while, he opted to head west where he had a job offer in San Francisco. It was just after 9/11, and a short stop for skiing in Vail, along the way, seemed like a good idea. And, like so many before him, decided to stay.
Ackerman got a job at Sweet Basil, but the work didn’t maximize his abilities or interests. “It turns out I don’t interview very well,” he explains. “Everyone else had these professional knife rolls, and I showed up with a paring knife and jeans. They made me the ‘muffin man.’” On a friend’s recommendation he went over to Splendido, a fateful move. He loved it, and still loves it. Not just the restaurant but the whole Beaver Creek set-up and dynamic. And he likes not being in the city.
“I had a couple of years of fine dining experience under my belt,” he says, “downtown Boston, high intensity. We’d get out at 2 in the morning and be back at 10 a.m. every day.”
It was a gentler schedule at Splendido, where one could get in a morning of skiing, head into work in the early afternoon and be home by midnight. And though it’s not ideal all the time —Ackerman probably hasn’t celebrated Christmas properly since 1997 — he loves being in a small town working with beautiful ingredients. He went from sous chef to chef de cuisine, spending a dozen years under the previous chef-owner David Walford before taking the helm five years ago.
Even before he became chef-owner, Ackerman paid attention not just to what worked in the kitchen, but to what worked in the dining room, too. And all of that early-career hazing set him up with an unflappable skillset that still allows him to deliver consistency each night whether they’re serving 80 guests or 180.
“He really digs the creativity, the opportunity to create,” says Matt McConnel, the dining room and beverage director. “He’s great about research, and he likes to read and stay current. For us it’s not about being cutting edge — where he and his team have done an exceptional job, is taking the classics — like the rack of lamb — and giving people what they want but also elevating it to a point where it’s super fancy, super beautiful and super, super delicious. I think you don’t always get all three of those things at the same time in other places.”
Chef Ackerman echoes the sentiment. “At the end of the day, everyone wants the classics,” he says about the menu. “Sole a la meunière, roasted rack of lamb — if you scrub off all the fancy little flavors it just comes down to the classic stuff. You’re adding to the classics, you’re putting your stamp on it. But there hasn’t been a new ingredient since, what, the Meyer lemon maybe?”
Classic is good, and works with Ackerman’s clientele. According to their purveyor, Splendido at the Chateau sells more caviar than any other restaurant in Colorado — not bad for a mountain town. And he keeps pursuing what’s going to push it up a level. They’ve always had their tower of fruits de mer, a seafood experience. But instead of just the traditional shellfish, it now includes crudos and ceviches to make it more interesting. And as chef-owner, Ackerman seems in his element.
“Brian really leads by example,” says McConnel. “He has a great understanding of the business. I think like any great leader, he’s not leading by ego, but he surrounds himself with strength. I think that elevates your product and your experience.”
McConnel rattles off the names of the crew: sous chef Cory Melanson, sommelier Bill Davies, bar manager John Marotta; former sous chef Quintin Wicks is back for the winter. And Ackerman, too, does what needs to be done — and then some.
“He’s back there in the dish pit, he’s making salads, he’s cooking Dover sole — he does everything from plumbing to refrigeration to just making it happen. And he doesn’t micromanage,” continues McConnel.
What Ackerman does do, though, is continue to refine what Splendido is. With its exhibition kitchen, it’s easy for guests to pop their heads in and say hello. And out in the dining room it’s friendly.
“We want to keep it fine dining but enjoyable,” he says. “So a lot of our repeat business has been from Matt and the waiters and Johnny at the bar all being so friendly, making it a place where people want to be.”
And people still want to be there, despite the pandemic. It was an unexpectedly busy summer for them. Not the highs and lows of a resort town restaurant, but the steady, familiar business of a neighborhood joint. Several people had standing weekly reservations, using it as their only night out. Friday nights were a lot like Tuesday nights, week to week to week. In fact, used to the cyclical nature of Beaver Creek’s resort schedule, it was almost surreal for the team.
And, surprisingly, the pandemic created new opportunities too. Even after the massive state-wide shut-down, the kitchen never went dark like the dining room did. At first it was just the skeleton crew — everyone on salary — cooking for local first responders.
“In the beginning we were just using up products we had so they wouldn’t go bad,” Ackerman says. “Then we started donating meals to the Community Market (a local nonprofit that helps food-insecure families in need while provide carefully crafted meals). And we’ve kept doing it; we donate roughly 200 meals a week.”
Initially Splendido received a small grant to cover roughly six weeks of donations, but it’s simply something they do now as a matter of course.
And while the world might seem uncertain in this day and age, Ackerman feels pretty lucky to be where he is. He and his wife, Corinne, have one daughter, Scarlet, who just turned 12.
“I ski a little bit, fish a little bit,” he says. “I’m in an all-men’s beer league.” By that he means he plays hockey, one of the few places where he’s not surrounded by the restaurant and its people. But the restaurant is never far away. And no matter who he’s feeding — high-end clientele at Splendido, or those navigating tough times at the Community Market — he won’t let anyone go hungry.