Eliza Gavin is pretty well known in Telluride and around the state thanks to her restaurant, 221 South Oak, but she also has fans around the country and the world thanks to her appearances on Top Chef.
Before settling in Telluride in the fall of 1999, Gavin moved around. A lot. From running a kitchen in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia while attending college, she has worked at Galatoire’s in New Orleans, attended the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley and Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. She has also worked for short stints at some very well-known restaurants including Ink in LA, Arzak in San Sebastian, Sweet Basil in Vail, Hinoki and The Bird in LA, Soba Ra in Honjo, Japan, Dirt Candy in NYC, and Frasca in Boulder. Eventually she found her way to Telluride where she began working at 221 South Oak. She took over the business the following fall.
This October will mark two full decades at 221, and while some things have barely changed, other things have changed a lot in the intervening two decades.
“There were fewer restaurants in Telluride twenty years ago, for a start,” she says. “It was also slow when we first started, and our summer seasons were really slow because many of the big festivals that Telluride is now known for weren’t around, but that was good as I had so much to learn.”
Gavin estimates that back in those days 75 percent of the restaurant’s trade came in winter. Now around 70 percent of her revenue comes in summer. And surprisingly, this summer will be no different, despite regulations around the coronavirus.
“We have actually built another dining room in what used to be our driveway,” she says. “We call it the Campground. It’s essentially a marquee with astro turf, and people seem to really like it. The extra space has enabled us to essentially offset the social distancing requirements.”
In fact, the Campground has offset the restrictions so much that so far this summer has been as good last summer if not better. It has been such a success that Gavin is actually hiring staff.
Gavin also teaches a Wine and Appetizer pairing class which is currently booked solid for the next few months.
Perhaps the biggest change Gavin has noticed in the industry in Colorado and in Telluride specifically is the advent of the farm-to-table movement.
“There are just so many more farmers now,” she says. “It used to be the case in Colorado that you could get plenty of potatoes and corn, but not that much else.”
In addition to more options, technology has also helped farmers and chefs communicate. “Even when you could find farmers growing interesting things, they would just turn up at your backdoor with produce, but by that point you had planned a menu,” Gavin says. “Now you can go online and see what people have and plan accordingly knowing it’s on the way.”
Back in 2012, Gavin competed in Top Chef Season 10 (she had previously won the Telluride Top Chef Competition by beating three of Telluride’s best chefs), but it was a bittersweet experience.
“It opened a lot of doors, and was a very humbling experience,” she says. “But it was so hard. I wasn’t in the restaurant for two months and so coming back was hard. On the flipside, it brought us so much business, so it was worth it in the long run.”
One thing that 221 is known for is its dedication to vegetarian dishes.
Gavin isn’t a vegetarian herself, but for the last 16 years she has offered a full vegetarian menu. “For so long menus would have a token vegetarian pasta dish at the very bottom. I thought that needed to be addressed,” she says. And even though things have changed a lot since she created her first vegetarian menu, around a third of people who visit balk at the idea of not eating meat.
Carnivores fear not, this summer you will be able to find meaty menu items like house made sausages, buttermilk fried quail with spicy honey, rack of lamb, and elk T-bones, but vegetarians or those looking for a meat-free meal, will also find delicious sounding dishes such as peri peri beet tartare and smoked tofu with edamame and corn succotash.
This year is not only the 20th anniversary of Gavin taking over at 221, it has also seen the release of her third cookbook. Her first, “Foreplay: A Book of Appeteasers” was released in 2006 which was followed by “Recipes from 221 South Oak Bistro” in 2009 which celebrated dishes that have graced the tables of 221. “Hold The Meat: Vegetarian & Vegan Recipes with Sassy Asides” is an exploration of vegetarian and vegan dishes with over 300 recipes broken down into three sections for those new to vegetarianism, those who want to expand their veggie horizons and the final section - Balls Deep Vegan - is for those who want to make the leap to veganism.
While it’s hard to pick just one recipe from that many, Gavin really likes the grilled celery with purple potato mash recipe as it showcases celery. “Gilling celery really brings out its sweetness.”
Gavin’s grilled shiitake mushrooms with nori oil from “Hold The Meat” can be found on page 44 in our grilling story.
“Hold The Meat: Vegetarian & Vegan Recipes with Sassy Asides” is out now and can be ordered online at 221southoak.com or by stopping in at the restaurant.