The Interview: Chef Rob Zack

We chat with the executive chef at one of Aspen, Colorado’s most historic hotel restaurants

Rob Zack

Chef Rob Zack recently experienced a homecoming of sorts. Nearly 20 years ago, he began his career as sous chef at Aspen, Colo.’s famed Hotel Jerome, before moving on to become head chef at some of the state’s most notable restaurants, including EightK and Pacifica. In 2012, the chef returned to the hotel as executive chef. Both the hotel and restaurant were completely overhauled last year, the restaurant was given a new name, Prospect, and Zack was given the opportunity to build a new menu, which he filled with updated classics as well as old family recipes like his grandfather’s meatballs.

The Daily Meal: What was your first restaurant industry job? 
Rob Zack: Dishwashing at 16 years old in a chain restaurant/diner called Baker's Square, outside of Cleveland. The kitchen had a 12-inch flattop and the volume was huge. I remember loving the energy and even back then I loved the work. I used to volunteer for the crazy shifts... baking pies overnight during the holidays.    

When you first walk into a restaurant, what do you look for as signs that it’s well-run, that it’ll be a good experience, etc.?  
I've both opened and closed restaurants over my 20-year career. It’s amazing how much you learn from a restaurant's failure: it’s almost instinctual, but I can tell in the first 10 minutes how a restaurant is doing. From a service perspective, it starts at the door. Does someone greet me? Is the initial interaction friendly and efficient? If I have to wait, do they offer a drink? From a food/menu perspective... is there a varied selection that fits what the restaurant is trying to be? Is the menu priced properly? If the restaurant has opened recently and the prices seem low compared to the image of the restaurant, it’s usually a sign of high food cost. As the restaurant evolves, they figure this out and suddenly the next time you go in the prices are much different... it really hurts the image. I think to a certain extent, you are what you are when you open... changing little things is natural and necessary, but you must stay true to how you initially branded the restaurant. These kind of mistakes are common. As much as I like to cook, the financial aspects to running a restaurant can really make or break you and need to be addressed early and often.

Is there anything you absolutely hate cooking? 
Honestly... no. I love the variety/creativity that the culinary profession provides.  

If one chef from history could prepare one dish for you, what would it be? 
Fernand Point. He trained a generation of French chefs and is considered to be the father of modern French cuisine. The chefs he trained are considered icons today. To do what he did during tumultuous times in France is truly amazing.

Although they are not chefs, I would also have loved to have cooked with my grandparents. Now that I am a chef, I appreciate what they did and taught me about food... all without even knowing the value of their skills at the time. I would love to not only have them prepare one dish, but work side by side with them in preparing the dish.

What do you consider to be your biggest success as a chef?  
I hope that my best days are ahead of me, but right now I would have to say becoming executive chef of the Hotel Jerome. This place is a part of me... I have spent so much time here over my career and to be back as the head chef is a special moment.

What do you consider to be your biggest failure as a chef?  
Closing a restaurant that I was a partner in. Although I learned a tremendous amount from the experience and would not be who I am today, it was very disappointing. 

What is the most transcendental dining experience you’ve ever had?  
Lespinasse in the late '90s when Grey Kunz was the chef. We had just done a James Beard dinner and dined with my parents and the whole Hotel Jerome crew. It was really my first dining experience at that level and a very special experience

Are there any foods you will never eat?  
Bugs... will never try… at least intentionally.

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Is there a story that, in your opinion, sums up how interesting the restaurant industry can be? 
The beauty of this business is that you never know what the day is going to bring. The interaction among chefs leads to an endless amount of creativity. I've spent more time with my cooks over the years... they become like family, working crazy hours and holidays. The scary part is that I'm now working with some of my cooks’ kids who have gotten into the business! This aspect is fascinating to me... cooking seems to be in the genes. The other aspect of this industry that I love is the ability to create such emotional ties to food. My mother recently asked me to try to recreate my grandfather's chicken. She had the basics of the recipe... chicken, red wine, vegetables, herbs. The method for the recipe was unclear. He was always constantly checking on the chicken, doing something, but I could never figure out exactly what. As I began experimenting and the smells began to fill the room, it all came back to me... I could picture my grandfather making the chicken and I remembered eating it as a child. The power of food and the memories connected to it has always been what drives me. As for the chicken, I was finally able to figure out the method... it was all instinct.