Like a father bragging about his newborn child, Chef Thomas Salamunovich talks about his Larkburger like it was a living, breathing part of him. In a way, it is his child, born in the kitchen of his popular fine-dining restaurant Larkspur in Vail. Now his Larkburger fast-casual eateries named for the gourmet sandwich are spreading across Colorado like wildfires. Twelve locations have opened since 2005.
“I had done a lot of fru-fru hamburgers as a chef; so when I opened Larkspur, I wanted to return to the truest form of the classic burger,” says the chef, who lives in Vail. He describes the flavor profile of the Larkburger in mouthwatering detail: pepper-flavored rich Black Angus beef, crispy leaf lettuce, crunchy red onion and dill pickle, and a house-ripened tomato. All this is tucked in between a freshly baked and toasted Brioche bun. His savory sauce—a mayo made with mustard and lemon (no sugar)—is a secret ingredient. “In America, our palate is assaulted by sugar. I rarely incorporate sugar in my food; I go to my roots of being classically trained in French cooking. In France I learned how to cook peasant food like a French grandmother. They call it Cuisine Bonne Femme.”
This French chef-turned-burger-aficionado spent time in France working at two- and three-star restaurants in Paris and the world-famous bakery Poilane Boulangerie. This took place after training on the West coast with master chefs Jeremiah Tower and Wolfgang Puck following graduation from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco in 1984.
His entrepreneurial path began in 1993 when he was hired as the executive chef at Sweet Basil in Vail. During his tenure there, he established, designed and helped operate its sister restaurant Zino’s Ristorante in Edward
s. Then in 1999 Salamunovich struck out on his own and opened Larkspur with his wife Nancy Sweeney, an art consultant who decorate
d the interior in detail, down to the plates and silverware. Their general manager was Adam Baker, who has since partnered with Salamunovich to found Larkburger. “We work so well together; I couldn’t be more thankful to
call Adam my partner,” he said. “It’s about growing a professional family as years go on.”
On the heels of the enormous success of Larkspur, one of Colorado’s largest independent fine-dining restaurants, Salamunovich opened Avondale in the Westin Riverfront Resort and Spa in Avon. There he was responsible for three meals a day plus apres ski fare and Avondale Market, a grab ‘n go deli in the hotel. He also started up Centre V (now Tavern on the Square) at the luxury Arabelle Hotel in Vail Square as well as managing all food and beverage there, plus two restaurants and food and beverage at Red Sky Ranch, an exclusive golf club in the Vail Valley. Understandably, he has pared down his entities to just Larkspur and Larkburger in his restaurant business, The Savory Group. “I needed to simplify my life so I can spend more time with my wife and children.” The couple, married 25 years, has three boys, age 21, 18 and 14. The older boys are in college while the younger one studies at Vail Mountain School.
Larkspur continues to win accolades as one of Vail’s best places to dine, and Larkburger grows and gets better. “We work on Larkburger all the time, testing it, working on a new grill, working on the way we flow pepper on themeat. We like each bite to be consistent with all the flavors,” says Salamunovich. “The minute you remove fork and knife—when you touch and hold food—you experience it on a more primitive level. When I can see a roll of the eyes in the diner, a movement of the chest, I get pleasure. Otherwise, there’s no reason to be in the business.”
The Larkburger family has many cousins and each one is different and cooked to order: Chicken Burger suggests fiery Latin flavors, Turkey Burger hints of savory spices and parsley, Tuna Burger is a four-ounce steak with an Asian sauce, and Amy Burger is a portabella mushroom slow roasted and paired with grilled onions. ( Salamunovich claims to be the first chef in Colorado to cook with that mushroom in 1993-94 at Sweet Basil.) Truffle aioli gives intoxicating flavor to the Truffle Burger and thick cut applewood smoked bacon goes into the BLT. Any burger can be wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun or a gluten-free bun.
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