For an outdoorsman and farm-to-table chef like Ryan Smith, cooking at Collective Vail represents the pinnacle of a culinary career. As in producing multicourse symphonies of sous vide cooking paired with molecular gastronomy, out of a tented kitchen perched on a ridgetop promontory at 4 Eagle Ranch in Wolcott. In case you haven’t heard, in addition to hosting a winery, zip line tours, a weekly hoedown, horseback riding, ATV tours, and paintball, 4 Eagle is now the summer home of Collective Vail, one of five Collective Retreats, a national luxury camping (a.k.a. “glamping”) conglomerate a pair of Aspen entrepreneurs launched two summers ago. The nightly rate for a safari tent pimped out with 1,500-thread-count linens, electric blankets, plush robes, antler chandeliers, wood stove, flush toilet, and concierge service rivals that of an executive suite at the Four Seasons in Vail.
This summer, after taking over as Collective Vail’s head chef from William Howell (a veteran of Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard), Smith not only oversees the culinary program in Wolcott, but also at similar luxury wilderness camps in Montana (Collective Yellowstone), New York City (Collective Governors Island, a ferry ride from Manhattan’s financial district), upstate New York (Collective Hudson Valley), and Texas (Collective Hill Country). Although the activities at each retreat vary by location (e.g., a Lady Liberty Sun Salutation yoga class at Collective Governors Island, a beer, brining, and branding class at Collective Hill Country), the signature experience at each is a nightly farm-to-table dinner served under the stars. At press time, Smith had just returned from a six-month sojourn at Collective Hill Country and was preparing to leave for Collective Governors Island, stopping in Wolcott long enough to unpack his Collective Vail camp kitchen (due to wildfire restrictions, there are no gas stove or ranges, just induction burners and sous vide equipment), and finalize the details of this summer’s farm-to-table menu, with ingredients sourced from Colorado purveyors, most of them local. Open to the public, Collective Vail’s Farm to Table dinner series will offer four seatings nightly (5 p.m., 6 p.m., 7 p.m., 8 p.m.; $150, including wine pairings by master sommelier Sean Razee in four 3-oz pours) through October 7, with six romantic two-top tables nestled in the desert scrub.
The menu? It starts with a salad of microgreens (from Knapp Ranch in Edwards) in a citrus-tarragon emulsion with sheep’s milk ricotta from Fruition Farms (a creamery on a 10-acre farm in Larkspur owned by wunderkind chef Alex Seidel, a James Beard Award nominee who once cooked at Sweet Basil), followed by bacon-wrapped Colorado rabbit loin with fennel-scented purée and LaVenture Farms heirloom carrots. After an intermezzo course (watermelon juice inside golfball-size spheres of sodium alginate, which Smith says explode in the mouth like a liquid-center Fruit Gushers gummy to cleanse the palate), the dinner continues with sous vide Colorado rack of lamb and Hazel Dell mushrooms (a grower from Smith’s Fort Collins hometown) with cauliflower purée in a soubise (a sauce of caramelized onions) truffle foam. For the finale—inspired by the wildfires that raged in the valley last summer—Smith pours hot liquefied, popcorn-accented caramel over a dome of dark chocolate, which releases a cloud of juniper smoke as it melts to reveal rum and Bordeaux cherry cheesecake.
“I love it when guests come here and say ‘This is the best meal I’ve ever had,’” says Smith, who cooked at Restaurant Kelly Liken and the Wolcott Yacht Club up the road (where he still resides) before landing his dream job at Collective Retreats. “I want them to feel like they’ve had a one-of-a-kind experience in a setting that you can’t get in a traditional restaurant. You’re eating food that’s of a quality that only a few restaurants up here are doing, and you have 80-some horses running over the pasture as the sun is setting over the Sasquatch Range. It’s surreal. There’s nothing like it. It’s one of the better sit-down meals you’ll experience in the valley.”
Or, at the last seating, with the Milky Way shimmering as the restaurant’s celestial ceiling, maybe even in the whole galaxy.
Unfolding around a communal table under a tent staked to the asphalt on East Meadow Drive, the Vail Farmers Market Farm to Table Dinner Series (6–8 p.m. July 12, July 26, Aug 16, $115; 970-401-3320; vailfarmersmarket.com/farm-to-table) may lack the scenic grandeur of 4 Eagle Ranch, but the enviable looks you’ll get from passersby as you break (Avon Bakery) bread with strangers in the heart of the resort’s thrumming greenmarket more than make up for it. Another must-do: Beaver Creek Wine & Spirits Festival’s Mirabelle Farm to Table Dinner (6–9 p.m. Aug 8 and Aug 9, $130; beavercreek.com), an elegant four-course feast of locally sourced ingredients (some from the restaurant’s greenhouse) on the lawn outside Mirabelle at Beaver Creek, hosted by chef Daniel Joly. And don't miss: A new Farm to Table Dinner Series at Hovey & Harrison, the ever-evolving artisan bakery/greenmarket/coffeehouse/wine bar/taproom that's become the community hub of Edwards. As a retail outlet for Knapp Ranch, expect plenty of truly fresh farm-to-table fare every Saturday night (6-9 p.m., July 6-Aug 24; $65; hoveyandharrison.com).