The Spice of Life
If variety truly is the spice of life, Spencer Hestwood is steeped in its piquancy. At his downtown Ginger Café, a busy kitchen dispenses the aromas of the pungent curries of India and Southeast Asia, and in its midst, Spencer dances between stove and plate. He started out as most do in the restaurant industry, by covering all the bases—dishwashing, front of the house, cooking, and just about anything to get himself through college, where he was mostly interested in art and photography.
Spencer’s main gig was at a vegetarian restaurant. In 1993, it was the first one in Omaha, Neb., where his family had moved to when Spencer was 11. Being exposed to veghead cuisine opened new vistas for him. “That’s when I started understanding that food can be more than McDonald’s,” he said, challenging him to learn about high-end food. “I went from a $10 veggie burger place to a $40 filet mignon restaurant.” He moved up the food chain by becoming the wine steward for the cornhusker city’s Bistro.
One day in 1996, the owner of an Indian restaurant asked Spencer to assist with developing the restaurant’s wine list, but it was the food that zinged his appetite for the spice. “I was writing the wine list for the Indian Oven and in turn, I asked to hang out with the chef because I didn’t know anything about Indian food. I needed to figure out what it tasted like because I didn’t know how to pair wine with it,” Spencer admits.
“That started my passion for Indian and Southeast Asian food,” he says. Eventually he picked up a couple of lunch shifts waiting tables so he could learn the food. Before long, he started hanging out in the kitchen more, shadowing the chef, which led to cooking. As an added attraction, he met his wife-to-be, Jennifer, who was working there.
Not surprisingly, before cooking took him to new frontiers, Spencer had early visions of being in a band. “I always wanted to be in bands but I have no musical abilities at all and I didn’t want to practice the guitar,” he laughs. “I don’t know if it was laziness or I just had a lot of stuff going on.”
His childhood days actually were in Amarillo, Texas, where his mother taught children’s theatre. “I grew up in a theatre family and I started acting at the age of 4, on stage, and shooting commercials and print ads,” he says, downplaying his stardom. “When we moved to Omaha I got involved doing community theatre there. I loved it. I was onstage until I was 22. Who knows? I might go back to that one day. It shaped a lot of who I am and allowed me to see different aspects of human nature.”
Although Spencer and Jen moved to Crested Butte in 1998, he’s been coming here to ski since 1985, staying at his step-grandparents’ house. “Snowboards weren’t invented yet, maybe there were snurfers,” he laughs, “but real snowboarding wasn’t quite mainstream.”
Using his photography skills, Spencer worked for Colorwest, Dusty Demerson’s one-hour photo shop, which led him to volunteer in helping the Crested Butte Community School develop its photography program. “At the same time I was learning how to blow glass. I learned how to make pipes and bongs,” he chuckles and explains, “It’s the art thing—overall, I’m just an artist.”
Spencer also grew up influenced by his stepfather, who made sure things went smoothly backstage and onstage at various shows. “My stepdad had all kinds of gigs, from production manager at a dinner theatre and for the Omaha Ballet to production manager and lighting designer for Mannheim Steamroller, the American group known mostly for their Christmas music.
“That’s how I got into being a roadie,” says the artist who launched into management. “I went on the road in the winter of 2003, touring with Mannheim Steamroller as casting director. I would leave two weeks before Thanksgiving to prep the show and return the day before Christmas.”
Juggling the coordination of hiring local talent in each town for the show, he’d organize the elves, toy soldiers, snowmen, gingerbread men and local choirs. “It was all about using kids in the productions,” he says. Spencer also doubled as head of security but laughs, “Mannheim Steamroller didn’t have a lot a groupies.”
With the variety of being tour cast director, security guy and a chef, Spencer heeded his stepdad’s advice to talk to the lead caterer for Jack Johnson, the Hawaiian folk musician his dad was designing lights for.
The caterer immediately hired Spencer as the chef for the entire Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young entourage. In the summer of 2006, they toured across the United States and Canada, doing 60 performances. It may seem like a glamorous life to be on the road with music legends, but for Spencer, it was intense.
“I started my day at 6 a.m. when a driver would take me to the local Whole Foods, because everything had to be organic. I’d proceed to fill up 16 shopping carts every morning,” Spencer says, describing the sometimes-chaotic scene—while he was pushing shopping carts his crew would unload the trucks, set up the kitchen, and cook breakfast. “I’d get back at 10 a.m. with the food for lunch, dinner and after-show snacks for 150 people, every day. Afterwards, we’d pack up the kitchen, hop on the bus and go to bed.”
His day didn’t end until he dropped into his bunk on a large tour bus with a dozen others. “It was total rock ‘n roll… front lounge, back lounge and bunks in the middle,” is how he defines the rolling party. One tour with CSNY, from July to September, was plenty, he deemed. He even turned down a Bob Dylan tour to get married that fall.
The next year, 2007, was comparatively mellow as Spencer did his final tour with Mannheim, and prepared to move the Ginger from its original Third Street location to Elk Avenue. “When I got home from tour at Christmas, Jen announced she was pregnant with our son Quinn,” he says, and by January 2008 they were up and running. He decided that maybe it was enough to just work his butt off in the restaurant and take as many runs on the mountain as he could.
“In the fall of 2010, I jokingly said to ET, the snowboard supervisor for the CBMR Ski School, that I would work teaching. ‘Hey, yeah, put me on, I need to get a paycheck,’” he said. Spencer didn’t expect ET to drop off a job application the very next day.
“It was pretty hilarious. I had never taught snowboarding. It was the furthest thing from my mind but basically, it kind of allowed me to get some rest a couple days a week and another perspective of living and working in the valley. You can get stifled and that’s what I was doing. It helped me clear my head and learning how to teach taught me how to train my staff better. It also afforded me a vast employee pool,” he chuckles. “When I teach, it helps me share my passion. I really do love the snow sports here.
“I love this town,” the spice guy says, singing the praise of all Buttians. “I knew when I was 10 years old that at some point in my life I’d live here. I’ve always been attracted to mountains in winter and when I started skiing as a kid I said to myself, ‘You will be a ski bum someday.’
“I like getting up, skiing all day and going to après ski and when you’ve got the chalet on the mountain to go home to, that’s really nice, too… not so bad.” Spencer says with a nod to his tiny castle-at-Pitchfork. “I don’t see myself wanting to leave anytime soon.”