Just a Small Town Boy
In between fragments of barely audible sentences, the grill flames are stabbing the air with sizzling aromas of burgers and fries. Ling Ling, a.k.a. Aaron Braitling, is juggling fried avocados, incoming orders and tales of his life from behind the bar at the Eldo. The evening’s entertainment is doing a sound check on their kick drum in a rhythmic annoyance. Aaron tells of a childhood that reverberates more than the incessant booming on the stage, one that shakes the very foundations of the heart, and yet, his is a story of survival and moving on.
Aaron was born in Okinawa, Japan, to a Vietnam vet Air Force father who had married Kathleen Mary, his high school sweetheart. They moved back to Saugerties, N.Y. when Aaron was a mere three years old. “I don’t really remember Japan. I remember New York,” he says of his earliest memories and adds, “Even though we were only there for a couple of years before moving to Arizona.”
What he does remember is being in a closet at that age, with his older brother, as his father somehow lit the house on fire and his mother took the boys and fled. Through a series of traumatic childhood experiences with people who were not conducive to the making of a happy youth, his mother moved them to Crested Butte when Aaron was six. Having passed through Crested Butte previously, his mom decided it was the place for Aaron and his brother, Rob. The family of three camped up Cement Creek, somewhat homeless until the leaves changed to gold and the nights became too chilly, before moving into one of the cabins up there.
It might have been the year of “un,” that 1977 winter the snow didn’t come, but Aaron remembers, with a laugh, “There was a lot of snow because we had to walk to the school bus stop three miles down the road, and both ways were uphill. We had plastic bags on our shoes.”
They moved to town, into the newly built “Disneyland” units. It seemed like a dream and life got easier not having to slide through snow for miles with baggies on your feet.
“School was right there,” Aaron says. He was ecstatic about the sudden convenience. “There were a lot of vacant lots back then and streets were dirt.” He recalls things a child would note, like, “Stefanic’s still had the bicentennial 1976 Coke in stock and it was 1978!”
Growing up in Crested Butte was the best thing for a kid—the summer freedom, the winter escapades, and of course, there were adjustments since Aaron and Rob came from a background different from the kids who were already here. “We had a hard time socializing with all the moves we made. There was a time Rueben Villanueva was gonna kick my older brother’s butt because my bro was being a smartass. It kinda runs in the family,” he smirks. “My brother hid out in the liquor store. We were looking for him all night. Rueben wasn’t, though. He had forgotten all about it. We finally found him before the store closed,” he laughs.
The local sentinels would spoof the kids for fun too, he remembers. “Tony Conoco would always tell us as kids that we couldn’t use the air hose to fill up our bike tires because the gas truck hadn’t shown up yet. So he’d always make us wait for the truck to show up.” The naïve youth one day understood they had been taken by an old prankster all those years.
There was the winter pastime glee of tossing snowballs off the stairwell at what used to be known as The Plaza downtown, where the second story deck ran the full length of the building, with a staircase on both sides (above where Alley Hats is now). The snowball perpetrators could hear the foot-stomps of authority coming up the stairs and had time to run down the steps on the other side. “I felt sorry for Rich Largo, who was the marshal at the time,” Aaron sympathized with a grin.
Recalling those happier days that Crested Butte kids seem to have, Aaron looks back on the life that afforded him tons of snow to shovel in the winter, motorcycle riding, and camp-outs with his friends. “I’d have to lie to my mom that we were spending the night at a friend’s house but we’d go camping. She knew most of the time,” he realized later.
His mom’s dream was to participate in theatre, and indeed, Kathleen Mary not only was quite active in the Crested Butte Mountain Theatre, she brought Aaron along and gave him a love and appreciation for it.
“We tore the town up as kids. I was always waiting for those summer friends to come back. The winter was tough for skiing though because I grew up with the Straubhaars and Casey and Chris Puckett, Olympic skiers. It was very challenging trying to keep up with them,” he recalls, but the perks were pretty good too. “They all gave me their hand-me-downs. We were all like brothers.”
His love of cooking manifested early—he started work at Le Bosquet in his early teens through high school, first working as a dishwasher, but evolving up the ranks. “Naturally you end up prepping some things, making the plates, gourmet garnishes and making the soup.”
In his senior year, Aaron moved to Cave Creek, Ariz., and after graduating in 1988 he moved to Denver, working his way up from a bag boy at FBC Foods International, to a pastry chef in about four years. He learned the art of the gourmet food in their deli by creating a plethora of different salads, soups and hot entrees. “It was quite the treat because you were required to taste everything. My palette got to travel even though I didn’t,” he smiles. The food industry became his mainstay. “It was always something to fall back on, and I had tried other jobs.”
There’s nothing like a broken heart to instigate change and get the creative juices flowing. Aaron headed to N.Y.C. after a breakup with a girlfriend, moving in with his mom and taking an internship at a computer animation studio.
But he didn’t enjoy it. “Art is a lot different than computer animation,” he discovered. “And N.Y.C. is out there.” The small-town boy didn’t find the Big Apple appealing at all. So, in the early ‘90s he bolted back to Denver, flip-flopping through jobs before moving to Las Vegas with a girlfriend who would eventually become his wife.
“I got a really good job working at La Savoy, a very notable French restaurant. It was still early in my career, so I was still just a spoon …you know, a line cook,” he chuckles. “But it was where I was really starting to learn.”
However, his girlfriend decided she didn’t like the town and Seattle looked better. “We were in Vegas maybe six months,” he mused. “I was just getting into my job when my girl decided she didn’t want to live in Vegas anymore. We moved to Seattle. I started off working for the Pacific Northwest Brewing Company as a cook and ended up being the chef because their chef had walked out in a huff,” he said of the windfall opportunity that also allowed him to fill in at other prestigious restaurants like Pier 54 and Tulio.
“I’ve been managing restaurants ever since and even though we found Seattle refreshing, we left the Northwest for Denver.”
Back on the Front Range, he took a position cooking for the Shriners in their renowned banquet hall, the El Jebel Shriner’s Temple, starting out as a sous chef and later becoming the head chef. Even on his days off he seemed destined to be in the kitchen. “When I wasn’t feeding 500 people in the dining hall, I’d go work with my friend who owned a deli in Denver, making specials and enjoying the smaller crowd.” Between moves to Kauai, points in between, and a divorce, Ling Ling found himself back in the town he felt at home in Crested Butte.
These days, he can be found in the chaos that is the grill at the Eldo, serving up tasty morsels of hot sandwiches and barroom munchies.
On his days off, he laughs, “I do laundry. I have one day off a week. I let the knees and the brain rest and watch stupid movies… ah, this is the stupidity I was looking for!” he lets the vegetative leisure mindset kick in. “Pretty much most of my life I’ve had only one day off a week. If you’re not washing dishes you’re breaking down boxes or, god forbid, prepping food. But that’s the chef’s life. Until I come up with one great recipe, you know, the one that brings in $10k to get the sailboat. It’s always been my goal to have a small sailboat to sail from port to port, south in the winter, north in the summer, because you can’t ride a horse anymore… try riding a horse through America and see how many fences you run into,” he chuckles.
But as far as leaving the valley and his home, “I grew up here. It was always the landing port,” and it’s likely to continue to be throughout his travels.