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Behind the Line: High-altitude fish
Ski season brings out the best at Beaver Creek Chophouse
By Lauren Kramer
February 05, 2012
Serving seafood at the Beaver Creek Chophouse in Beaver Creek, Colo., is a challenge for Jay McCarthy, corporate chef at parent company Group 970. The 120-seat restaurant is known for its excellent seafood, but product has become so expensive that the profit margins are very slim.
“Snow crab legs are going through the roof,” he says. “Last year we paid $10.50 per pound and this year they’re priced at $28.” Mahimahi, served in the lunch fish tacos, increased from $3.80 per pound to $6.80. And the company’s decision to switch Norwegian or Chilean farmed salmon to Pacific farmed salmon in 2008 meant a price jump from $5 to $11 or $12 per pound.
Seafood constitutes 20 percent of the menu at the Chophouse, which features six to eight species at any one time. There’s Maine lobster, Idaho ruby red farmed trout, Alaska halibut and oysters from the East, West and Gulf coasts. To make the price hikes more manageable the restaurant group priced some of its seafood at double the cost instead of triple.
“We’re taking a hit because we want to enhance the dining experience, make it affordable and be known for featuring good seafood,” says McCarthy.
Chophouse has two menus, one with all proteins, and a second dedicated exclusively to seafood featuring oysters, cold seafood towers, snow crab legs and crab cocktail.
“With other players coming into the valley we decided our niche should be oysters, and we figured we could differentiate ourselves in that way,” McCarthy says.
At one time the Chophouse had a seafood bar at the front of the restaurant with a live lobster tank and shucked oysters. When staffing the bar became a challenge three years ago, it was dismantled and a cold station was created in the kitchen to prepare the towers.
Chophouse seafood arrives via air cargo to its two restaurants (second one is in Vail, Colo.) five days a week, using suppliers including Seattle Fish and Northeast Seafood of Denver and Shamrock Foods of Commerce City, Colo.
Crab cakes, salmon, mahimahi and oysters are customer favorites. The Chophouse goes through 800 to 1,000 oysters a week. The shells get returned to Seattle Fish, which sends them to Rappahannock River Oyster in Tappahannock, Va., which uses them to re-set oyster beds.
“The shells help to keep the oyster beds sustainable and encourage growth in other inlets that had been overharvested,” he says. “By putting the oyster shells back in the water, it increases oyster production and revitalizes the ecosystems in those inlets.”
The sustainable seafood movement has had an impact on the restaurant’s buying practices, and its switch to Pacific farmed salmon is one example.
“It was motivated partly by us wanting to do the right thing, and partly by the fact that we get a lot of well-traveled people in our restaurant who want to know about the source of the products,”McCarthy says. “We wanted to serve wild salmon, but we also didn’t want to deplete the wild stock. So we started researching where and how salmon was being raised and having discussions with our suppliers.”
Because Chophouse makes 85 percent of its annual income in the winter ski season, the salmon choice came down to wild frozen salmon or fresh, farmed Pacific salmon from Oregon that are fed organic pellets.
As he looks to the future, McCarthy’s biggest concern is the cost of food, proteins in particular, which he predicts will see a price increase of 4 to 8 percent.
“With costs going that way, you have to look at your menu and your portion control,” he says. “It’s easy to find a lesser-quality item at a lower price, but I think doing that undermines your business. So it’s the juggle of maintaining high quality at a decent price.”
Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia