On Thursday, March 15, RMFR was in attendance for Springs Orleans’ debut of Chef’s Table, a series of monthly, multi-course pairing dinners led by executive chef, Jason Miller, with 15 percent of the proceeds to benefit REACH Pikes Peak. The local non-profit agency serves approximately 10,000 individuals in the region annually who reside 200 percent, or more, below the federal poverty line.
Miller says he feels a strong connection to REACH because it “hits a mid point” offering assistance to those in need but promotes self-sufficiency and continuing education.
“I’ve been struggling to find a way for my skill set to be able to service this organization,” says Miller. “It helps people help themselves to reach new milestones in life.”
The event also serves as a long overdue platform for Miller to showcase his culinary talents that extend far beyond the traditional menu and introduces a cozy dinner party atmosphere that invites community involvement. We sit down with Miller to discover his deep-seeded Southern roots and discern why this is an important and necessary progressive step forward for him personally, and for 365 Grand Club.
“It was born out of a lot of things,” says Miller. “I don’t really have a showcase for this kind of stuff and a lot of my career path here has been about expansion.”
Miller attests to the juggling act he manages and says he “wears many hats” supervising 365 Grand Club’s new market, another kitchen being built in the Gold Room, banquet services and his lead role in the restaurant.
“It’s something I’ve learned to embrace as a next step, learning as much as I can about this industry, because you’re always learning,” says Miller. “So that’s an exciting part of the creativity process.”
We ask Miller if Chef’s Table is an answer to the stillness of the Springs Orleans’ menu, which never rotates and consists of a lengthy 57 items total, which Miller confides has been whittled down from 87 options prior to his promotion.
“It’s not my doing that the menu is as static as it is,” says Miller. “Perry [Sanders, co-founder of 365 Grand Club/Properties] is a big believer in people should be able to get exactly what they want, every time and if they came back and something was gone… they’re going to be upset and he doesn’t want to upset anybody.”
For a business that revolves around consumerism we understand the logic, but resist, recognizing that today’s culinary climate strives on seasonal updates and delving into more adventurous dishes.
“If we take stuff away, then yeah there might be some people that are disappointed but when we add stuff on I guarantee you they’re going to like it,” ensures Miller.
The chef’s background affirms his level of experience and abilities to adapt which begins in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida. Miller’s “renaissance man” title makes sense considering how he started his career “working in every position in the restaurant, sometimes a few per shift” handling everything from fish butchery to bartending.
From there Miller moved to the rich, culinary melting pot of New Orleans and emphasizes his time there as “enlightening and formative” cooking in fine dining establishments. Most notably, he references his six plus years at The Grill Room at the Windsor Court Hotel under French master chef, Rene Bajeux.
Miller recounts the challenging nature of his position familiarizing himself with how to handle lives eels, breaking down entire sides of different animals and evolving with menu changes of over a dozen items every three weeks.
“[Bajeux] loved challenging us as well as challenging the diners,” says Miller. “If there was something we were interested in, that we wanted to learn, he would present it to us in the hardest way it could possibly be put, but the right way.”
We wonder aloud if having that level of excitement in his former job gives Miller heartache in his current gig?
“I wouldn’t consider it stagnation because it allows me to focus on always fine-tuning,” says Miller. A valid consideration we absorb, but Miller acquiesces that he has been able to elevate the menu during his tenure and integrates daily fish specials to create some diversity.
Miller credits his former mentor, Bajeux, with teaching him “how to construct food and create the proper succession of a meal like Chef’s Table.”
“He showed me what’s appropriate when and how,” says Miller. “His real basis in cuisine is one I still believe in myself called terroir, the agricultural and spiritual connection to the land. There’s a causality to all of it and to properly respect what it is we do as chefs. It goes back to understanding where it came from and how it came to be.”
Chef’s Table provides guests with a level of anticipation with only hints to what is on the menu and Miller admits he continues to make tweaks in the evening prior. For his first endeavor Miller conceptualizes a “goodbye to winter” with classic preparations and a focus on root vegetables to round out his seasonal appreciation.
Chef Miller greets the room and graciously thanks everyone for allowing him to utilize the component of surprise. A glass of Les Pierres Chardonnay arrives from Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards, the featured winery of the evening, followed quickly by the first cold-weather course.
We begin with a roasted red and golden beet salad with a sprinkling of fresh herbs, crumbles of feta cheese and a delicate haystack of kataifi, shredded fillo dough popular in Greek desserts. A floral hibiscus vinaigrette grounds the earthiness of the vegetables and a candied hibiscus garnish offers a sweet-tart accompaniment.
The second course unveils a fusion of distinct flavors with Chinese pork belly and strawberries in a Peruvian ginger glaze, made of brown sugar and honey, with a sticky minted calrose rice cake topped with microbasil. One guest comments that it “tastes like Sunday morning” as the bacon-like essence melds with the syrupy sauce, the starch and fruit elements to incite a brunch-worthy dish.
“I end up going to Asian food as a comfort food,” says Miller “It’s a little known thing in the New Orleans community that Vietnamese food is huge and I learned so much about that when I was there.”
Miller also alludes that this dish is an homage to a Louisiana tradition “cochone de lait,” a massive pork-filled festival full of music, drinking and dancing that signals the end of winter.
“It was the biggest honor being invited to one of these,” says Miller. “It’s a little brutal but it’s a pretty big party and everything gets used in some kind of way, making sausages, frying cracklins, slow smoking barbecue and it goes on all day.”
Miller approaches the table and visits each guest to generously drizzle a savory saffron sabayon sauce over strips of succulent, butter-poached Maine lobster tail with lemon basil gnocchi. The interactive third course, which receives a blissful compliment from a pinot noir rose, makes the diners feel involved in the experience and creates a personal connection with the chef.
He says plating the dish is important since “it’s kind of a volatile sauce that falls apart easily” and although the execution is simple, the quality ingredients shine and it stands out as a favorite amongst the group.
“I never just do food to create a culinary spectacle,” says Miller. “You can have a thousand immersion circulators, powders and foams, and it still doesn’t taste good, it just looks good.”
The fourth course is a wild West version of “tournedos Rossini” named after the prominent Italian composer, Gioachino Rossini, famous for his brilliant operas and gastronomic predilections. A bison tenderloin filet nestles into a parsnip puree with seared Hudson Valley foie gras on top, sliced black truffles and the signature sauce “a la Rossini,” a port wine demi glace.
“This is a classic French preparation except with a Colorado twist,” says Miller, who pairs the reimagination with a supple Russian River Valley pinot noir that also parlays well into the dessert course. The wine pairings are all very free-flowing and there’s no dictation to sip this and taste that. Miller says he enjoys working with the small, California winery as “their products are very singular and very focused.”
Our sweet ending is courtesy of Christine Adrian Miller, pastry chef, and Miller’s spouse, and catches our eye as the most exuberant presentation of the evening. A velvety, chocolate hazelnut Bavarian with fresh raspberries, a raspberry macaron and a dollop of vanilla cream with an energetic twill, spun sugar that wraps around the plate to create a multi-dimensional and “whimsical” aesthetic.
“My wife is easily as much of an accomplished chef, if not more and we work very well together,” says Miller. “She’s not a sugar girl but she knows how to do that really well.”
Mrs. Miller is also responsible for Springs Orleans unrivaled bread pudding which ranks as one of our favorite desserts in Colorado Springs. Miller elaborates sharing that her pecan tart is so heavenly it’s said to make people cry.
The setup of the gathering, built around groupings of large, circular tables, organically engages guests across the table and we find ourselves engrossed in lively conversations regarding each course and the pairings.
“To do something like this is honestly like doing a dinner party for my friends,” says Miller, who says he plans to keep the intimate setting intact with a conservative cap of 24 people.
“This is kind of a wild card because you don’t exactly know what you’re going to get,” says Miller. “I’m overwhelmed that people trust me enough to say we’re not sure, but we’re going to come anyway.”
The next Chef’s Table is on Thursday, April 19, with a shift into springtime ingredients that honors “the first things that grow” with “less domestic agriculture and more wild.” Miller also names Colterra, a Colorado winery, as his next pairing choice that he feels can aptly stand up to his forthcoming dishes. Tickets are available for $46.00 with optional wine pairings (that includes two glasses) for $12.00.
Miller plans to develop new themes and include a variety of wine and beer selections as the dinners progress and mentions a desire to “open up people’s minds” to sours this summer courtesy of his friends at Paradox Beer Company from Divide, Colorado.
As dinner concludes and people slowly leave they appear to be happy and full and Miller too seems quite content. Although he has been relaxed and approachable throughout the night, he relishes the moment and magnifies the afterglow of a well-received meal at the first installment of Chef’s Table.
“I didn’t get into this business to cater to my own ego, I’m here to make people happy,” says Miller. “If I’m happy to make people happy then as they would say in Louisiana that’s ‘“lagniappe”’ which means, that’s just a little something extra.”
*Header image courtesy of Springs Orleans