Chef Martin Oswald is a rock star. He owns Riverside Grill in Basalt and is the executive chef at Ute City and Syzygy in Aspen. Plus, he’s from Austria, the land of sacher torte, gemutlichkeit and schnitzel.
Martin became a chef because of his mother. “I grew up living in the lush farming countryside of Styria, Austria. There my mother, who formerly worked in a Swiss restaurant, grew all her own vegetables, herbs and fruit. Meats, dairy products and honey were provided from the neighbors. My amazing mother cooked us three courses for lunch everday!” Martin grew up “living” farm to table, head to tail, organic, local, and seasonal. It was just how it was done.
In Austria kids decide at a young age whether to go to the University or to pursue a trade. Martin choose cooking and was sent to work as an apprentice 10 months of the year and to culinary school 2 months of the year. “You learn more working in a kitchen than you do in a culinary school classroom,” he says. Upon graduation Martin went to work at one of the most prestigious spas in Europe. At the Spa he quickly learned from the dietitians how to make healthy meals. To this day he tries to incorporate as much fiber into his cooking as possible.
When Martin turned 19 he moved to New York. While working in a large restaurant he learned to cook for a multitude of people and to do it well. It is a skill he still utilizes when he does catering for big events in Aspen. After New York it was off to San Francisco to work for a famous Austrian Chef, Wolfgang Puck at Postrio. This three story restaurant, with a kitchen staff of 75 had a multitude of different foods, tastes and plate presentations. “Everything at Postrio was made from scratch – from the puff pastry to the breads and the housemade salumi.” Martin worked every station at Postrio and actually turned down a promotion to be sous chef because he wanted to learn more about butchering. It was at Postrio that Martin was introduced to Asian flavors, foie gras terrines, house-smoked salmon and where he saw for the first time the breaking away of using butter sauces and béchamel. “Vegetables were grilled and marinated with EVOO. It was light and fresh cooking. It’s still a big influence for me today.” After Postrio came a stint at Sweet Basil in Vail and then finally Syzygy where he has been since 1995.
Which of the restaurants are your favorite: I like all of them because they are so different. Riverside Grill is about doing approachable food. Ute City is influenced heavily from my days at Postrio and Syzygy is all about fine dining.
On Molecular Gastronomy: It is a unique and eye opening experience for diners. Right now we are doing a crispy béarnaise and blue cheese powder at Syzygy. I want each dish to have a unique element.
On being a hands-on chef: The most experienced set of hands belongs in the kitchen, not talking with guests in the front of the house.
Favorite utensil: Mini spatula
Favorite cookbook: Babbo
Favorite restaurant: Guy Savoy in Paris
Favorite knives: Mac
What do you eat at home: My wife buys the best Irish cheese and there is always a bowl of seasonal fresh fruit on the kitchen table. I love fresh fish and I love to make pesto from the ingredients in my garden.
Tips for home cooks: Always get the best olive oil and balsamic vinegar that you can afford.
Most underrated kitchen tool: Mortar and pestle. Using this tool will change the flavor profile of an herb dramatically.
What would you put on the menu if you didn’t have to worry about it selling: Tripe. If done correctly it crisps up nicely. I would also like to feature brains with butter, shallots and raw egg yolk.
Rules in your kitchen: No picking on the weakest link. Everyone needs to work hard and respect each other.
Being a chef has been a wonderful journey. 28 years later I look at the evolution and revolution of cooking and how it never stops. Each day you search for perfection, a way of doing it better.
What inspires you: Currently, I’m inspired by Noma, a two star Michelin restaurant in Copenhagen that was named Best Restaurant in the World. The chef, Rene Redzepi is known for his reinvention and interpretation of Nordic cuisine. He uses molecular gastronomy and only super local ingredients. It’s perfection.
On being a chef: It’s like living in a state of madness.