Ore House chef Ryan Lowe describes what it takes to thrive in Durango’s bustling restaurant scene

There are dozens of restaurants in Durango, ranging from fast food to steakhouses. All have their own methods for cuisine, décor, and chefs. Chefs define a restaurant, and there are many with big-city talent who have chosen Durango for quality of life.

Defining what makes a successful restaurant or chef, however, is not easy. Chef Ryan Lowe, restaurant general manager at the Ore House Restaurant in Durango, said possible qualities include: a fascination with cooking, determination, a quality consciousness, a love of working with people, a good sense of communication, and of course, a love of eating.

A good chef must also consider the clientele. Durango has a wide range of people with varied tastes, including farmers and vegans, said Lowe. “Local chefs have to be adaptable. We have chefs of a caliber that could operate in big-city restaurants, and they decide to live in Durango for a life quality, but they have to deal with the seasonality and having to deal with a clientele that won’t eat the food that they’re trained to cook,” he said. “I think the chefs here have to be thick-skinned and not too caught up in the idea of their own cooking.”

When Lowe considered if he has “made it” as a chef, he wasn’t sure. “It never feels as though you’ve made it,” he said. “You’re constantly going, ‘What else can I do to improve this?’”

Lowe has worked and cooked at the Ore House on and off for the past 11 years since the age of 16, when a friend passed on a dishwashing job. By age 18, he was working the line. “I was just determined to do well at it and enjoy it,” Lowe said. “I tried to understand everything from the facilitation to the delivery to the execution.”

He then attended Fort Lewis College to work on a mechanical engineering degree. Because FLC only offers general engineering, Lowe moved to California. He was back almost two years later. “I realized that I really love Durango and want to be here,” he said.

He’s still undecided about the switch from engineering to cooking. In the meantime, despite a staff break during the kitchen remodel, Lowe monitors the high school ProStart culinary team, which took third at the state competition this past year.

In addition to the kitchen remodel, Lowe has helped make other transitions, such as the removal of the salad bar and the development of a good restaurant culture. “I’m not this old crotchety guy who’s going to dictate what they do, but we are going to require that they be passionate and care about what they do, and if they don’t, we can’t have that kind of culture here,” said Lowe. “We have to have people who are really enthralled by what they are doing.”

This reminded him of yet another quality that a good chef should have: the ability to create a good culture. “You can create a culture in your restaurant that’s angry and frustrated and tired and burnt out and overworked and underpaid. Or you can create a culture of people who are just fascinated and excited by food and really wanting to develop their skills and abilities and all those things,” said Lowe. “I want to start from ‘what do you know, and let’s work from there and see what we can come up together.’”

Originally published in Durango Living Magazine on September 18, 2011.

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