Discover Vail: What does a MICHELIN-Recommended rating mean for Sweet Basil?
Paul Anders: First of all, it’s an honor to even be included. The caliber of restaurants that are included in the MICHELIN Guide are the best of the best. In some ways, it validates the years of hard work and dedication to our craft. On the other hand, it makes us push to be an even better version of ourselves. There is no doubt that the expectations have risen and we now need to deliver an even greater experience.
Matt Morgan: It’s definitely a “feather in the cap” kind of situation. We don’t as a general rule set out to achieve awards, but to be recognized in MICHELIN is certainly gratifying for our entire team after all of the days, weeks and years of hard work. Also, a recommendation this year whets our appetite for maybe a star next year! It’s a good incentive for all of us to continue to improve our restaurants at all levels.
Discover Vail: How does the MICHELIN Guide coming to town help Vail?
Paul Anders: I have always believed that a healthy competition among restaurants in Vail would produce a more elevated dining scene. When all of the restaurants are trying to be the top dog, we get a much better caliber product across the board. I hope that the guide will serve as a motivation for restaurants that missed being included to strive for that inclusion — and I hope the restaurants that were included will now try to get a star and so on. When this happens, the guest will be treated to a more consistently excellent dining experience.
Matt Morgan: I think the presence of the MICHELIN Guide in our town ups the ante for all of us who want to see Vail continue to grow our reputation as a top-tier dining destination. Hopefully many restaurants will accept this as a challenge in the years to come.
Discover Vail: What’s your favorite thing about the Vail restaurant scene?
Paul Anders: The Vail dining scene and the seasonality created by the resort is unique and I think it breeds a camaraderie within the restaurants in our area. We may go an entire season without seeing each other, but then in the off-season we will see a chef, restaurant owner, server, etc., and instantly know what each other went through the past season. We all know what the grind is like and respect each other for that. It makes us tight and forms an unspoken bond, which I think is unique to our industry and location.
Matt Morgan: We are a small community — competitors, yes, and also friends and colleagues who in many ways are all in it together. This is one of the great things about living in a small mountain community.
Discover Vail: How’d you get your start in the restaurant industry?
Paul Anders: Indirectly. I was a struggling liberal-arts student with no clue as to what I wanted to do with my life. My parents helped me get some clarity and suggested that I focus on something that I loved but also viewed as fun. I began cooking at home around 16 years old and just enjoyed following recipes and trying things out on my family. They must have thought my creations were at least edible because my dad suggested culinary school. I looked into it and, honestly, from Day 1 it felt “right.” It felt like where I belonged. I’ve never looked back.
Matt Morgan: I started bussing tables for some cash when I was 15 years old, and held restaurant jobs for the next few years during school. I always loved the excitement, camaraderie and barely managed chaos that occur at most restaurants. I honestly never intended to make it my life’s work, but somewhere along the line I realized that I really loved it and the hospitality aspect of serving guests — and that the opportunities were endless if I applied myself. I jumped in the deep end and never looked back, either!
Discover Vail: How has Sweet Basil evolved over the years?
Paul Anders: One of our hopes and goals is that you would never guess Sweet Basil is a 46-year-old restaurant. The space has gone through numerous remodels and expansions over the years and we continue to reinvest in the space year after year. The biggest change though has to be the people. I truly believe that a restaurant should be and is a reflection of the people that put countless hours into it. So, when we have a new chef, their style and flavors are reflected on the menu. The same can be said for a wine director or dining-room manager … you can see part of who they are in the experience. We hope that through ownership we provide a guiding light and mission for who we want to be, but our people are ultimately the ones who make it happen, each with their own methodology and flavor.
Matt Morgan: The full answer is much too long to repeat here. The shortest answer I can give is that we’ve gone from a 47-seat restaurant in 1977 to about 130 seats as of our last renovation.
And, as our now-retired founding partner always said: ‘Never be satisfied or think that you’ve got it all figured out. Work hard and try to find at least one thing, big or small, each day to try to improve.’ That’s how we still approach each day 46 years later.
Discover Vail: What is the ideal experience for a guest in Sweet Basil?
Paul Anders: I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all perfect experience for our guests. We get so many different people from different walks of life and parts of the globe. Some people are looking for a multi-course gastronomic experience, some are celebrating a special occasion, some are just looking for a tasty lunch on a Wednesday. Point being, I just want them to be happy with the experience, no matter what they are looking for. That can be really hard to pull off, honestly. I want them to walk away saying, “That was awesome, I can’t wait to come back!”
Matt Morgan: Part of our mission statement says that we want our guests to rave about our restaurant and have no choice but to return. As Paul mentioned, these experiences can come in many forms, but when they stop at our host desk to make a reservation for the following night because they’ve been blown away by their meal, I think that says we’ve provided the ideal experience for that guest, whatever it means to them.
Discover Vail: What’s the most exciting ingredient or flavor right now?
Paul Anders: Tough question … Flavors, ingredients and seasonal feel is always changing. From a chef’s perspective, we love to change and experiment so I may have a different answer next week. Right now we are playing with persimmons, which are really seasonal, delicious and unique. Also, coming into winter, we are seeing an emphasis on more hearty flavors and meats, so we have been tasting some incredible beef, venison and heritage pork cuts.
Discover Vail: If someone has never dined at your restaurant before, please describe the ultimate multi-course meal.
Paul Anders: I go back and forth personally on how I like to dine and approach a multi-course meal. Sometimes I like to have my own personal plate and focus on experiencing a singular dish on its own. Other times I like to share a bunch of dishes and maximize the flavors I get to try.
So, maybe the perfect meal is a blend of both: A first course of lighter shared appetizers, crudos, oysters, etc.; the second course would be a salad- or vegetable-focused dish for myself; then for third, maybe a couple of heartier entrees to share again with the table. Finally, for dessert, again some shared bites but with a blend of decadence and bright/clean flavors and dishes. Always ask your server for recommendations within the style you are looking for.
Discover Vail: What goes into crafting your Sweet Basil menu?
Paul Anders: Seasonal and local are really the core of all high-caliber cooking. It is just the right way to do it. However, in Colorado in February, we definitely don’t have a ton of local produce running around, so we branch out to regionally sourced ingredients. We always focus on the feel of a dish. Is the weight of the dish seasonally appropriate? Is it something I would want to eat when it is 85 degrees or 20 degrees? I think feel and weight play into our style greatly.
Discover Vail: Which menu dish is your most popular?
Paul Anders: Our Caesar salad has been on the menu forever and is likely our top-selling appetizer for lunch and dinner. The crispy shrimp and calamari is also timeless and remains a real crowd favorite on our lunch menu. A newer item than those two — but working its way into the same realm — is our whipped-feta appetizer, although this one has seen more changes than the others. Chef Will just came up with a new pork entree for dinner that we think can make a push for a signature-type item!
Discover Vail: Which dish flies under the radar but is lowkey your favorite?
Paul Anders: I think in general our raw-fish preparations are exceptional. They change all of the time and definitely seasonally so it is hard to pick one, but I would definitely recommend not missing those items.
Discover Vail: How far in advance should a Vail visitor consider reserving a table? If you’re a walk-in, is there a better time of day to try to get a table?
Paul Anders: I would book as far out as possible. In season, we typically book very quickly. We take reservations 30 days out in advance. Walk-ins are encouraged and often easier during our lunch hours. For dinner, walk-ins can be more challenging, but we do have a bar that is first come, first served.
Matt Morgan: We also do leave a fair number of tables available for walk-ins, and our bars are always full-menu service, no reservations on first-come, first-served basis. We try to provide as many ways as possible to accommodate our guests when reservations are hard to come by.
Discover Vail: How do you define good service? What about indulgence?
Paul Anders: I define good service as not good enough — it should be great (haha). My ideal service is being provided with everything that I need for a great experience without being hovering or intrusive. There is a delicate dance of being present but not overbearing. The knowledge of the service staff is also something that sets good apart from great. I am always impressed when a server can answer questions tableside without the “let me go check,” etc. When servers or wine professionals can make great recommendations and engage in meaningful conversation, it makes you feel more a part of the experience as a whole. It should be genuine and from the heart. A great server is someone who truly cares about your experience and is invested in making sure you have a great time.
Matt Morgan: Great service is warm, caring, intuitive, authentic and, of course, highly skilled and competent. Every guest is different — some want to hear all about a server’s experience living in a beautiful mountain town, others want to be served and left alone. Great service identifies the difference and delivers.
Discover Vail: How would you describe the restaurant’s general ambiance?
Paul Anders: Clean lines, modern without being stark and mountain modern: There is a warmth and glow about the room that makes you feel welcome. There is also a lively atmosphere when we are in season and full, so the energy of the room is captivating.
Matt Morgan: Our goal is warm, comforting, timeless elegance. Stuffy and pretentious are bad words in my book. We want our room to be first class and beautiful yet inviting and certainly not intimidating. It doesn’t matter to us if you forgot to pack the perfect pair of shoes for the occasion. Come on in and let’s have some fun together!
Discover Vail: What is the most rewarding thing about being a chef and being in the restaurant business?
Paul Anders: I have two things that give me great satisfaction. The first is whenever a guest says “that was the best ____ I’ve ever had.” Nothing is more meaningful than guest satisfaction. The second is when former employees go on to accomplish great things. It is such a satisfying thing to see and hope that we had some small part in helping them accomplish their goals.
Matt Morgan: It’s the relationships with both coworkers and guests. We are fortunate to have been around for a long time, and that has allowed us to make real connections and memories with multiple generations of people. We can have a meaningful and memorable impact on people’s lives and vacations, and this is very gratifying.
Discover Vail: On your off day around Vail, where else are you dining? How else are you spending your day?
Paul Anders: I keep it pretty low key on days off. Generally my wife cooks at home. When I actually have time to go out to eat, we love to visit Matsuhisa for amazing cocktails, food and bustling atmosphere. Osaki’s [also a MICHELIN-Recommended Restaurant] provides an incredible sushi experience and the pastas at La Nonna Ristorante always hit the spot!
On days off, we fully embrace the mountain lifestyle — but, more and more, we are trying to get away from the crowds. I have gotten into snowmobiling for the winter and fly-fishing in the summer. They’re very different activities but both help find peace and solitude. It’s great for clearing the brain!
Matt Morgan: There are many great restaurants and I am hesitant to name a few at the risk of leaving out others! That said, Matsuhisa is a favorite, La Nonna Ristorante and The Left Bank are also up there on the list. And all three of these represent very diverse experiences. I love to ski, hike, camp and golf. In the last year or two my wife, Jana, and I have also begun exploring some backcountry skiing and enjoying a few hut trips. There’s never a shortage of things to do and, as long as I’m outdoors enjoying the fresh air any time of year, I’m good.