One of Boulder’s finest restaurants — one of Colorado’s most awarded and one of the most storied restaurants in the nation — has a surprising secret to its continued success.
It’s led by a group of millennials, all under the age of 30.
The Flagstaff House defines high-end dining in Boulder and has been a landmark for almost a century, boasting sweeping views of the city from atop Flagstaff Mountain. Despite the restaurant’s age, things here are far from stagnant. Fresh, new perspectives from young leaders have brought about changes in the menu, the design and the feel of the whole place.
In the last year, the evolution of the Flagstaff House has been significant, staff says.
The family-run restaurant is currently headed up by general manager Adam Monette, age 28, part of the family’s third generation of leaders.
The kitchen has a fresh, young perspective, too. The executive chef, Chris Royster, is only 29. But he doesn’t lack accolades. He’s a Food Network “Chopped” champion and recipient of a Zagat 30 Under 30 award.
Then there’s 28-year-old Elizabeth Sammuri, the sommelier and beverage director. She’s the youngest of the three Flagstaff leaders and has huge expectations to fill. Wine Spectator has awarded Flagstaff House its highest honor, the Grand Award (fewer than 100 of these awards are given per year worldwide) every year for 32 years in a row. The restaurant has some high-end wines in its multiple wine cellars housing about 16,000 bottles — the biggest wine collection in Colorado. Flagstaff House’s selection of 2,900 wines is so big that each guest is given a tablet to search the menu.
Although Monette has grown up with fine dining in his blood, he has brought a unique perspective to the Flagstaff House since taking over as GM. He chose unique dishware and serving vessels that are different for every course. This makes every bite its own unique experience, not just with flavor but also visually. (Not to mention it makes some fun Instagram fodder.)
Monette’s first job at the Flagstaff House was peeling potatoes and carrots and washing dishes for years, until he earned his way to more challenging positions; he was not given anything simply by birthright. Although it seemed like a predetermined fate, he says he was never forced or pushed into the field. At age 13 — braces, squeaky voice and baby-faced — he was given a shot as a “server assistant.”
“I had to really want it,” he says. “Working alongside my father, uncle and grandfather was all that I ever wanted, and I worked hard to get there.”
Family was everything for Monette.
“Working alongside the first and second generations was one thing, but then having an opportunity to see my brother, sister, and 12 cousins working the floor truly gave us a huge family bond,” he says.
Monette studied hospitality management at Colorado State University and worked at various restaurants along the way (“all the while knowing that the Flagstaff House meant more to me than anything,” he says). He has also worked in about every role at the Flagstaff House until he was named a partner in 2018.
As a younger leader, he says he works to balance market trends with the restaurant’s truth and vision.
“I hope that I can help lead and be a huge part of the growth that will allow the Flagstaff House to last another 50 years,” Monette says.
He envisions more changes on the horizon (cosmetically to improve the ambiance, for example), but there’s one thing he doesn’t see changing.
“I hope that I will be able to always play a significant role in the management and ownership of the Flagstaff House for the rest of my life,” he says.
As executive chef and partner, Royster renovated the menu. He changed the restaurant’s dinner format to offer three- and five-course tasting menus, plus added more refined offerings that are all plated carefully. Think: art that you can eat. (Again, making Flagstaff’s dishes immediate #foodie stars on social media.) Younger diners want to share their experiences with others, so the presentation and aesthetics of food matter more than ever, according to the Flagstaff House.
Of course, while at it, the flavors need to retain their expected quality. In addition, the tasting menu allows for an interesting, ever-changing, modern dining experience and lets the kitchen continually test its culinary skills, Royster says.
Royster grew up around food in New York. His mom ran a cake-decorating business and his dad and grandfathers were avid hunters. Royster learned how to hunt and fish, which taught him how to use the whole animal and make things like sausage and jerky. Royster’s career in restaurants started as a dishwasher with his brother. He was 14. His first day was New Year’s Eve.
Even though he was just washing dishes, he says it was absolutely incredible.
“I was obsessed immediately. I fell in love with every aspect of the kitchen,” Royster says. “The creative artistic side of things, the structure and flow of service, the crazy buzz that filled the air as the rush of dinner service flowed over everyone. I never wanted to leave that environment.”
The brothers worked their way up the ladder, until they were co-chefs at age 18 and 19. They moved together to Colorado and worked at various restaurants around Boulder County (Three Leaf Concepts, The Huckleberry Cafe). In 2011, Royster joined his brother (Adam Royster, then chef de cuisine; now no longer with the restaurant because he moved back east) at the Flagstaff House. Chris Royster started as sous chef, then he became chef de cuisine. He was named executive chef and partner in 2018.
“Running a kitchen like the one we have at the Flagstaff House is incredibly challenging and demanding, no matter what age you are or how much experience you have. Our guests have to come to expect a particular level of service, and rightfully so,” he says.
But he says he thrives in the demanding environment and welcomes the challenges.
As a young member of the team, he says he brings a new approach to fine dining, but he also enjoys introducing younger diners to dishes they may not be familiar with.
Ultimately, he says, the age of the staff isn’t a determining factor.
“It’s more the mindset and dedication of the staff to make everything we do better and better,” he says.
Sammuri, a Colorado native, used to be a professional snowboarder. Now she works on the top of a peak in charge of the drinks at the Flagstaff House.
She has elevated the restaurant’s beverage experience by creating a unique pairing menu that highlights unexpected takes on certain types of wine. This spring, look for her special rose wine pairing menu.
Although the Flagstaff House is renowned for its extensive list of Grand Cru Burgundy and First Growth Bordeaux wines, Sammuri says she wants people to know there are also many amazing bottles between $50 and $100. In addition, she says, many people don’t realize the restaurant has a large selection of rare and unusual spirits, especially Scotches and whiskeys.
“We love to create interesting and unique cocktails to complement the incredible food coming out of the kitchen,” she says.
Sammuri began her career in wine at the age of 21 at a small winery in rural France. The goal: to learn the wine industry from the ground up. Over the years, she worked in wine shops, wineries and restaurants and studied wine in Italy. There, she studied viticulture and taught about Italian wine. She continues to learn and aspires to become an advanced-level sommelier and study through The Court of Master Sommeliers.
Although she lacks the years of experience as older sommeliers, Sammuri says she aims to make up for it with her background in wine around the world, her teaching and extensive studying.
She encourages other young people pursuing their passions to be courageous.
“As a young female sommelier, at times it has been easy for me to be intimidated or overwhelmed by older, more experienced members of my profession. But I have confidence, and I think confidence is so important in this industry so that people know they can trust you and rely on you,” Sammuri says.