Author: Annette Gallagher Weisman
I puff up the steep, wooden stairs leading to CP Restaurant Group on South Galena Street and am a little out of breath by the time I reach the large, light-filled office of restaurateurs Samantha and Craig Cordts-Pearce. Samantha is seated to my left at one end of the room, and Craig is behind a desk at the other.
Struggling to remove a jacket sleeve inconveniently stuck mid-elbow, and with the other hand unwinding my scarf, I glance at Samantha. She is quick to assess the situation and offers to swap seats, supplies me with a pen, a pad if I need it, and even a glass of water. Kindness itself. It’s also called being a manager—an essential part of any team.
Well-known restaurateurs and chefs are celebrities these days. Certainly, in Aspen, Samantha and Craig Cordts-Pearce have made a name for themselves owning six restaurants currently: The Wild Fig; CP Burger; The Monarch, and SteakHouse NO. 316, in Aspen, Woody Creek Tavern about eight miles downvalley, and a second SteakHouse NO. 316, in Boulder.
I say currently because they’ve owned other restaurants including Brexi Brasserie, which became The Monarch and now has a gentleman’s club vibe, and Lulu Wilson’s situated in a cozy, intimate Victorian house which became SteakHouse NO.316. Aside from profitability, Craig and Samantha have an innate sense of what works. SteakHouse NO. 316 is so popular they opened the other larger steak house in Boulder. It has an elegant atmosphere and until recently was their newest venture. The Wild Fig, their first restaurant, which has a Mediterranean cuisine, is still going strong since it opened in 2003.
Samantha is wearing a black sweater over jeans, while Craig favors a more casual grey hoodie. She has modestly called herself “a worker bee” while referring to her husband as a “visionary.” Whatever the balance of their yin and yang partnership, their combined dualism spells success.
I ask them first about their most recent acquisition, The Woody Creek Tavern, a former hangout of the late Hunter S. Thompson, about to reopen under their stewardship.
S: It’s brand new for us and we are in the midst of developing it and changing up the menu.
Q: Will you keep it the same?
C: Yes, it’s pretty much a dive bar.
S: But a chef-driven dive bar. It will look the same, but with an updated kitchen and back bar. It will still offer bar favorites and Mexican food but with an emphasis on fresh products.
Q: What attracted you to the Woody Creek Tavern?
C.: What doesn’t attract us? It’s the last watering hole we have in the valley.
S: It’s the last old-school watering hole in the valley, and we wanted to make sure it landed in the hands of locals.
Q: Speaking of living locally, you and Craig have been in Aspen a long time?
S: Thirty years. He’s been here twenty-eight years, something like that.
C: She was working at the Smuggler (Smuggler Land Office Bar & Grill) and I was working at the Caribou Club. We met in Aspen, but when working next door to each other, that’s when we really connected.
Q: Craig you were a busser when you first started. Did you ever want to become a chef?
C: No. We’re both front-of-house people. We know how to taste good food and to taste good wine.
Q: Aside from the Woody Creek Tavern, how do you decide what kind of food you will serve in each restaurant?
C: The building dictates what kind of restaurant it will be. That’s how we do all of our projects, the building speaks to us.
Q: I read you travel the world to find menu ideas.
S: We don’t travel the world looking for new menu items, but we travel and that’s what we love to do and that’s why we work so hard, so we can travel. During our travels, we are inspired by the foods we find.
Q: Where do you like to go?
S: Living in the mountains, we like to go to the beach and we like to go to cities. We like big cities, but not like LA that is all spread out, but like London, New York, and Paris where the center is humming and you know you’re in a city. We love Europe and travel extensively there; South Africa, Central Europe, wherever. We have a giant bucket list!
C: That’s the fun part of the job.
We talk about their two teenage children, and Samantha says they like to eat with them at The Wild Fig, which is their first restaurant in Aspen that they refer to as their “baby.”
Q: What about traveling? Do you have a favorite family destination?
C: We go everywhere together. Greece is one of our favorite places.
Craig mentions that their 18-year-old son is going to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in the fall. (Where Prince William and his wife the Duchess of Cambridge went.)
Their daughter is almost 16 and just finished her high school varsity soccer season.
S: They just made it to the State Championships. Like all Aspen kids they are both into sports, play tennis in the summer, and recently got their scuba certification in Honduras.
Q: What about you and Craig, do you have time for sports?
S: We always say we are going to play tennis! As a family, we ski, hike, bike, surf, and scuba dive. The Belize Barrier Reef continuing down to Honduras is the second largest barrier reef system in the world, and more alive than Australia so it’s amazing to dive there.
Craig and Samantha are playful with each other and have a good sense of humor.
Q: What would people be surprised to learn about both of you?
C: I like to knit.
S: I won a car on The Price is Right.
I almost believe them till Samantha admits they’re joking.
Q: Seriously, what would one be surprised to learn about you?
C: I’m petrified of heights.
S: He used to be a Paraglider years ago and had a scare in the sky. Now he’s afraid of heights and doesn’t do it anymore.
They banter back and forth about a few other likes and dislikes.
C: Seriously, a good fact is many people out there don’t know we design and build our own restaurants. A lot of people say they do, but we actually use our hands.
S: Craig designs them and does everything on the interior, hammers nails, picks the colors, installs wood floors, does the trim, moldings, kitchen, bar, everything. Craig designed this office and the whole building inside.
C: We could almost have a design firm attached to our business if we wanted to.
This space has such good energy. It’s cool to be in town too.
They are both friendly and open, and clearly happy to work here. Craig remodeled the office and the entire top floor of the building for other tenants, including reclaiming the 150-year-old oak floors, exposing all the original brick, put up moldings, new sheetrock, lighting, and bathrooms.
S: We’ve been in this building for a long time and used to have twice as much office space. It’s a bit of a shambles right now. We went paperless a few months ago and got rid of seven filing cabinets and are down to one —waving her hand at an area that must have been more congested.
I take a moment to look around. Aside from the original 19th-century brick, the walls are painted a deep, deep shade of green, a chic effect given the light from the large waist-high-to-ceiling windows. There is a huge poster for CP Burger lying against a wall in one corner and several boxes on the floor, which seems like normal stuff to me. All, that is, except a big bright shiny red object in the middle of the room. Craig pats it fondly informing me it is Berkel used for slicing meats like prosciutto, He pats it again as if it were a Ferrari. But then in the food business, the right machine can save a lot of time and money and produce a better product.
Q: I know CP Restaurant Group has over 200 employees, including those at the Woody Creek Tavern. What are the qualities you look for when hiring staff?
S: They have to be passionate about the business. We don’t want someone just looking for a paycheck. Anyone who doesn’t love food, design, wine hospitality, and people, we pretty much don’t hire.
C: There’s a lot of learning to do also, such as orientation for new and existing staff, tasting of new menus for the upcoming season, and some management excursions.
Q: What about the wine lists Samantha, are you involved?
S: Back in the day, I used to do it at The Wild Fig, but General Manager Teresa Mulvaney is a Certified Sommelier and chooses the wine. As we’ve grown, we have sommeliers in all of our restaurants, who are fantastic.
Q: Craig, I’ve heard your grandmother was a big influence in your life?
Craig, who spent his formative years in Cape Town, South Africa, begins to tell a story about his grandmother, which is riveting. He says her name was Norma Harmon and she had a homeopathic practice for 46-years in Durbin. He lived there during his childhood and traveled around with her to different local townships, where she treated people in their homes and counseled them there. She never charged her patients but accepted donations. Other patients would come to their home at 66 Chelsea Drive in Durbin; sometimes they’d bring food such as potatoes in lieu of payment. “But by Friday, there was always enough money through donations to cover bills.”
After his grandfather passed, his grandmother became a swami –“ like an Indian nun”, even comparing her to Mother Teresa “She was a tiny woman, blonde blue-eyed, who would fit under my arm. She also converted to Hinduism. “
He goes on to describe growing up in Ashrams and Indian homes where he would sit on the floor and eat with about 20 people using his hands. “As a young boy, I grew up in that whole world of gurus and eating Indian food. My grandmother was often surrounded by as many as 200-300 people. She opened three homeopathic clinics in India too and never charged for them. I’ve never been to India but in Johannesburg right now there’s one called Soham Sanctuary. It’s huge, about 4 blocks by 4 blocks. As well as homeopathy, the clinic provides counseling, reflexology, gardens, and prayer rooms.” Harmon authored several books and won an Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award. Craig shows me the medallion on a chain around his neck with a symbol engraved on it, which he says is Norma’s personal Om and he wears it all the time to remind him of his grandmother.
While Craig hasn’t been to India, his face lights up when he talks about the Indian food he had growing up in South Africa, especially when cooking using an open fire, which he loves. He is also enthusiastic about a famous Argentine chef, Francis Mallman, who cooks many of his signature dishes using the same method. “I’ve seen Mallman on a Netflix show Chef’s Table. A man who travels globally, but whose home base in Patagonia is so remote it takes a boat and a plane to get to it.”
We tossed around names of other favorite chefs and restaurants and then went back to discussing Indian food. While they both love Indian cuisine, they don’t think they’ll ever open an Indian restaurant. Never say never, I thought recalling, the delectable Moules Frites in a curry sauce I’ve had at The Wild Fig.
But their focus, for now, is on The Woody Creek Tavern. A hangout so beloved by locals and steeped in lore it’s become iconic. Owning a restaurant like that with such character and history is like owning something integral to the land and its people, something that never fades, but only grows richer.
Well aware of the pleasures and pitfalls of the restaurant business, Craig and Samantha know what it takes to succeed, and in taking on the mantle from prior owners of The Woody Creek Tavern, want to ensure its legacy continues.
Q: This pandemic year must have been a tough one for restaurants?
S: Having the government decide for you when you can open and how you can open—not being in control of your life has been challenging.
It is evident from our conversation, Craig and Samantha are hardworking people, who are passionate about everything they do in life, but especially conceptualizing, developing, and running their restaurants. It takes a lot of work, drive, and yes, toughness to succeed in the restaurant business but in the end, it’s all about love. And it couldn’t be more obvious in talking with them, they absolutely love what they are doing. Craig likened dinner service in their restaurants to the theatre: “When we open at 5 pm, it’s showtime. As you walk in the door, the curtain goes up, everything is live, and all your hard work as a director pays off.”
In the world of restaurants, the show must go on. Now, about to reopen The Woody Creek Tavern, Craig and Samantha Cordts-Pearce are at the top of their game, having earned all the accolades they’ve received.