I started my first restaurant job at 17, in a fine dining restaurant at the base of Beaver Creek Resort. I was a back-server (you know, the one who fills you up with water, brings you bread, and tells you your server will agree with you?). For four years in college, I worked through school breaks and summer vacations, living at home, stashing away my tips, paying off my student loans, and getting a very skewed idea of what “the real world” when my first marketing job was paid. only $8 an hour, a far cry from the $200 I would tip every night.
I entered the restaurant at 4 p.m. and left at 11:30 p.m., leaving “work” behind me every evening. I’ve met actor Don Cheadle, worked countless wedding receptions, and seen my fair share of debauchery at the bar. Tried my first olive martini (spit on the carpet) and a sip of $2000 wine (thought it tasted earthy). I found colleagues who became family and formed friendships that lasted well beyond my tenure.
It was the best job I’ve ever had.
Fourteen years later, I live in Aspen with a traditional 9-to-5 career, a loving husband and, like any good millennial, anxiety. Call it nostalgia, a desire for simpler times, or a way to deal with my mental health, but I wanted to get back into the restaurant industry. So I spent the 2021-22 winter season working part-time at Ellina on the Hyman Avenue pedestrian mall.
I loved every minute.
Coming back to an industry that was so formative in shaping me as a person was like coming home. Aspen is definitely different from Beaver Creek. Being 17 is much easier than being 31 (my whole body aches these days). And times have completely changed. Aspen is experiencing an unprecedented transformation in the restaurant industry, and longtime local haunts are disappearing faster than our regional watershed. Yet the resilience and commitment of those remaining local restaurateurs – like Ellina – is to be commended and revered.
In a season fraught with staff shortages and supply chain issues, there were nights when the venue was half full, making it possible to spend the holidays with just two or three servers each night. There was a week when Jill Carnevale, the owner, had to work on the line side by side with her kitchen crew because someone was sick.
“All it takes” was the attitude. And whatever it takes, it got us through the season.
Did it help me, my anxiety, my mental health, to work at Ellina? Yes.
It allowed me to stop dwelling on my daily work and forced me to focus only on the task at hand. Were there times when the anxiety-inducing panic of dropping food at the wrong table was crippling? Yes. But the restaurant is consistent. The job itself doesn’t really change, but the laughter, the people, the atmosphere make the place. Drinks are flowing, as are friendship and advice.
Of course, Aspen is still Aspen, and it will still have its quirks. While some guests can certainly be “demanding” (highlights include a Doberman “service dog” that barked throughout dinner, and the constant herds of girls wearing Kemo Sabe hats so big it was impossible to reach over their head and pour water), usually what people are looking for is a good dinner with good service. And I was happy to provide that, to the best of my ability.
The local restaurant scene is certainly changing, but the people who work there in the evenings are still the same. Will I come back? Next season or next year? I mean I will. As long as life doesn’t interfere. The people who run and work in the restaurants here have a special soul: dedicated, meticulous and passionate.
For this season at least, I am proud to count myself among them.
Sara Stookey Sanchez was born in Vail, works at Snowmass and lives in Aspen. She loves food and wine and has eaten at almost every restaurant in the Roaring Fork Valley, although she has only worked at one so far. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.