First look: HUSH founder Phil Armstrong opens Aurum Food & Wine in Steamboat Springs
You can always tell when a restaurateur is apathetic, even when it's his first rodeo and the balls are to the walls. Phil Armstrong is the antitheses of the indifferent restaurant owner. Armstrong, who first made a name for himself five years ago, when he started an underground supper club in Denver called Hush -- a supper club that put chefs, both lionized and unknown, in the spotlight -- has spent years behind the scenes, consulting for restaurants and working in restaurants and hotels, but Aurum Food & Wine, which opened last week in Steamboat Springs, on the rushing banks of the Yampa River, is all his, and it's clear that this is a guy who couldn't be more thankful for a shot at his dream.
All photos by Lori Midson.
"I've always -- always -- wanted my own restaurant, but for one reason or another, things didn't work out, so my mom calls me a modern day prospector panning for my golden opportunity, and she's right: I'm chasing my pot of gold, and I feel so fortunate to have found it," says Armstrong, whose mom also suggested that Armstrong call the restaurant Aurum, which happens to be the Latin name for "gold," a color that's dominant throughout the fabrics and furnishings in his two-tiered restaurant.
But while gold typically refers to prosperity, neither Aurum nor Armstrong are high and mighty. In fact, Armstrong, who spent the past few years in Telluride, got a lot of his inspiration for Aurum from a weathered saloon in Telluride named There. "There is this little bar in Telluride that's insanely fun and has ridiculously good energy, and when I was thinking about what I wanted for this restaurant, I knew that I wanted to put the fun back into fine-dining," explains Armstrong. "I want my staff to have fun while they're working, and I want to turn fine-dining on its head and make it an experience that's engaging and incredibly hospitable for our guests," he adds, noting, too, that he's obsessed with Danny Meyer, the famed New York restaurateur who wrote Setting the Table, a must-read for anyone employed in the hospitality business, restaurant or otherwise. "Hospitality is a lost art," insists Armstrong, "but Danny Meyer is my idol, and I try to embody his philosophies, part of which means putting your employees first, because happy employees who are treated well translates to happy guests."
And happy chefs.
Armstrong met Aurum executive chef Chase Wilbanks, an Estes Park native who was most recently behind the burners at Shanahan's, in 2009, during a Hush dinner event in Denver. And the two immediately hit it off. They kept in touch over the years, and when Armstrong had solidified the concept for Aurum, the first person he thought of to run the kitchen was Wilbanks, a young chef who shares Armstrong's infectious enthusiasm. "This restaurant is our baby, and Phil and I have the same vision for its future: genuine hospitality and service, a space that's warm and friendly; and really great food," he says.
His menu, a homage to seasonality, bright flavors and elegant presentations, focuses on produce procured from Yampa Valley farmers, meat sourced from local ranchers and whatever's available at the town's farmers' market. "This is the first time in several years that I've had the freedom to just create, and I'm in a restaurant -- and in a town -- where there's an amazing commitment to seasonality and locality, and that really inspires me," he says.