To your health, at Aspen’s new Pyramid Bistro
Sunday, December 12 2010
ASPEN — Looking over the menu for his new Aspen restaurant, Pyramid Bistro, Martin Oswald points out the polenta soufflé. It is among the more indulgent selections on the menu. “This is for someone who needs to splurge,” he says. “It's a gruyère soufflé, with arugula pesto and olive tapenade.”
At the restaurant Oswald was best-known for, Aspen's Syzygy, a gruyère soufflé wouldn't have counted as a gustatory splurge. At Syzygy, where Oswald was executive chef for 15 years, through this past summer, an indulgence meant an elk tenderloin or a Muscovy duck breast — preceded by an appetizer of seared tuna, maybe, and definitely followed by a rich dessert.
But the Pyramid Bistro, which is set to open this week upstairs from Explore Booksellers on Main Street, is a sharp turn for Oswald. On a menu that emphasizes greens and whole grains, berries and beans, the gruyère soufflé does stand out (although Oswald is quick to point out that he will also be offering organic roasted chicken, Scottish salmon and a daily fresh fish special, so that his clientele won't be limited to girls-nights-out).
Pyramid is focused on the nutrient quality of a meal. So Oswald is grinding his own flour, since flour loses much of its nutritional value in a matter of days. He's devising ways to get kale and turnip greens into dishes without broadcasting the fact that this is good-for-you food. (“You can sell only so much turnip greens. So we sneak it in — maybe a little mustard greens into our pasta here, a little collard greens there,” Oswald said.) There's an aspiring nutritionist on the staff. And Pyramid's Caesar salad features red peppers, green beans and barley, and a dressing made with almond butter and a puree of local white beans.
“I'm taking maybe 30-50 percent of the fat content, and replacing it with the bean puree,” Oswald said, noting that oils have an extremely low nutrient-to-fat ratio. “I want to create the healthiest Caesar salad in town. That's my goal.”
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On the day we spoke, at the Pyramid space, with vendors pitching brands of tea, kitchen staff with questions, and potential employees creating a stream of demands on the chef's attention, Oswald's primary focus seemed to be on the stack of papers in front of him. There were several pyramids —a Healing Foods Pyramid, Dr. Weil's Anti-Inflammatory Food Pyramid, Joel Fuhrman's Vegetable Pyramid — plus other nutrition info in non-pyramidal form. It gave the appearance that Oswald was trying to play catch-up — the fine-dining chef now trying to ride the trend toward healthful eating.
It's true, Oswald is trying to play catch-up. But what he's chasing isn't the latest fad. Instead, he's chasing the kind of cuisine he set for himself years ago.
Oswald, a gentle-natured 43-year-old, grew up in Styria, a region of southeast Austria where, he points out, pumpkin seed oil originated. Oswald is a fan of the oil — “It's a fantastic product. Very healthy. Now everyone makes pumpkin seed oil,” he said — but an even bigger hometown influence was the Wilfinger Bio Hotel, a spot famed for its spa cuisine — meals meant to nourish, even heal, diners. Even before Oswald spent three years, beginning at 15, as an apprentice at Wilfinger, the place had an impact on his thinking about food.
“I didn't know about organic. Because that's all we had. No one talked about organic,” he said. Oswald worked in all four of the spa's restaurants, and came away with a distinct perspective on food. “It's a completely different way of looking at things. And you pick up that style.”
After a year as chef de partie at Willi Dungl Health Resort & Spa in the Austrian city of Gars am Kamp, the spa style was ingrained in Oswald. At the age of 20, he organized a Day of Health, featuring cooking demonstrations and displays of health products, for the city of Hartberg. When he set off for New York City soon after, it was with the specific intention of bringing spa cuisine to the States.
But getting a job cooking grains and greens was impossible. So Oswald entered the realm of fine dining, landing a job at Postrio, Wolfgang Puck's celebrated San Francisco eatery. Two decades later, the experience still fills him with wonder.
“He made everything from scratch. It was incredible — 20 varieties of bread, 20 varieties of sausage. One hundred and twenty cooks,” he said. “I've never seen anything like it since.”
Postrio paved the way for a smooth transition from spa cuisine to fine dining. Oswald moved on to Vail's Sweet Basil, where he spent a year as sous chef. In 1995, Aspen restaurateur Walt Harris recruited him to become chef at Syzygy. It was a comfortable fit: Oswald spent 15 years at Syzygy, helping make it one of Colorado's finer restaurants, and establishing a diner-friendly atmosphere to go with the elegance. He opened the casual Riverside Grill in Basalt, while keeping his position at Syzygy, and when Harris expanded last year, with the Ute City Restaurant, Oswald took on executive chef duties there as well. All the while, a big part of the job, one he excelled at, was preparing the VIP meals for Jazz Aspen Snowmass' festivals. Spa cuisine receded to the back of his mind.
“I got fascinated with high-end cooking, really enjoyed the traveling, getting to know these great restaurants and chefs. And you're cooking with great ingredients,” he said. “I'm glad I did it.”
But it was also a burden. Oswald spent too much time away from his family, which includes two young kids. Looking for a break, he left Syzygy and Ute City. “It became too much of a madness,” he said. “I did some soul-searching: What did I want to do next?”
As it happens, events conspired to bring him back to thinking about health: His father-in-law had a heart attack and devoted himself to low-fat eating, which has had profound benefits. A friend from Syzygy got cancer. And the Explore space, where people had been coming for healthful and vegetarian food for years, became available.
Seeing an opportunity to do what he had set out to accomplish as a young chef, Oswald dived in to the Pyramid concept. There are no high-heat techniques — no grilling, no frying — that robs food of nutrients. Desserts are centered around fruit rather than sugar. The wines are organic or biodynamic.
Oswald understands what he faces: It's a lot easier to sell — and to satisfy a diner with — a juicy steak and fries than it is with spelt gnocchi. But he's got skills enough to make healthful items fulfilling. (Witness his sweet potato lasagna, which had no trouble pleasing diners at Ute City and Jazz Aspen). And he is as committed to healthful eating as he has been to indulgent eating.
Asked about the challenge, Oswald said, “I have too strong a belief that what I'm doing is right. I don't want to spend the rest of my life just doing the same thing. I've learned these things about nutrition, and I want to pass them on. Here I am, 20 years later, and I get to do this.”