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Denver’s loss is Breckenridge’s gain as Matthew Vawter, the executive chef at Mercantile Dining & Provision, announces his plans to leave the Mile High City and open his first solo project in the Summit County mountain town. His last day at Mercantile will be October 3.
“After 13 years, I’m bouncing,” says Vawter. “We’re moving our family to the mountains, where we’d always planned to return.” Vawter grew up in Summit County and graduated from the Colorado Mountain College Culinary Institute in Keystone. After school, Vawter cooked at Alpenglow Stube and the Cellar in Breckenridge, then followed his then-girlfriend (now wife) to Denver when she was accepted at a master’s program in the city. Then 22-year-old Vawter began working for Alex Seidel at Fruition, moving his way up the line from garde manger to sous chef. Seidel made Vawter a partner at Mercantile when it opened in 2014, and Vawter led the Union Station kitchen as chef de cuisine until June of last year, when he was promoted to executive chef.
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“I wouldn’t feel prepared or confident in opening my own restaurant without the experience I’ve had at Fruition and Mercantile,” says Vawter. “It’s been a great ride and I’m excited to build on it out on my own.”
While Vawter can’t yet disclose where precisely his new restaurant will be or what he’ll call it, he did share that it will be small and intimate, with about 50 seats under current capacity restrictions. “The lease starts in mid-October,” says Vawter, “and we should be open by mid-December. It’s a smaller space, so I won’t have the firepower that I do at Mercantile, but I’ll be able to get back to my roots and cook food that’s a bit more simple and comfortable.”
Vawter intends to continue sourcing locally grown ingredients, as he’s done in Denver, despite the challenges that being based in Breckenridge presents. “All the purveyors that operate in Denver deliver to Breckenridge, too,” says Vawter, “but you get food three or four days each week instead of six. I’m excited to work with the local chef and grower community to try and overcome that.”
Seidel couldn’t be happier for Vawter and his family. “I’m really proud of him and excited for him. Matt has always wanted to get his family back to Breckenridge and this is an amazing opportunity,” says Seidel.
What’s next for Mercantile? Seidel says the Union Station restaurant with be fine. “We’ve got four sous chefs that have been with us for a long time, and they are all capable of holding it together until we can find the right person to fill Matt’s role. There’s a lot of talent out there right now. I’ve been talking to people from around the country—New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago—and we’re going to put together a good team going forward. This is a chance to change and grow. It’s bittersweet, but more sweet than bitter.”
As far as opening a new restaurant in a mountain town in the middle of winter in the midst of a pandemic, Vawter is hopeful. “The new space has patios for spring, and the menu will be takeout-friendly,” he says. “I’m going to build it small, and then the only place we can go is up.”