Chef Dave Merlina, holding his homeade "Hand & Whisk" burnt caramel sauce.

by Jennie Lay

IT’S BARELY NOON and dinner in the Craig-Scheckman home already smells delicious. Sarah and Michael’s personal chef, Dave Merlina, is floating back and forth between thyme-infused marrothat’s reducing on the stove and homemade ramilk ricotta that’s draining over the sink. The marrois part of a duck au jus that will blanket Italian sausage-stuffed quails. The cheese goes over fresh pasta with asparagus sauce and pequino peppers. Homemade peach tart, tomato foccacia and a corn shooter will round out the evening meal.

Cooking with Dave makes every conceivable flavor and texture fair game. But when he moves on to masterminding his holiday menus, he still opts for ultra traditional. Despite all the worldly goodies at his fingertips, Dave says nothing beats a stuffed turkey – no matter what any trendy celebrity chefs have to say about any merits of a bare bird. His favorite stuffing recipe remains his mom’s: onions, celery, lots of butter and bread cubes cooked in eggs.

“Simple is better. It’s the bottom line,” Dave says.

Of course, “simple” is a relative term in this foodie’s world. He’s worked as an on-call winery chef in Napa and also claims to be a beginner cheesemaker despite a wine cooler filled with aging parmesan, manchego and cheddar cheeses made from hand. A tour through Dave’s pantry is an adventure in amazing ingredients for experimentation. He’s curing meats, trying molecular gastronomy, ra“cooking” and creating delicate chocolates. He has bottles of rare Moroccan argan oil, sweet fermented black garlic, salts to make sausages and bags of benito flakes. His own special creation, a burnt caramel sauce under the label Hand and Whisk, will even be debuting on store shelves by the holidays – and he says it’s decadent on duck.

Dave is obsessed with learning everything he can about all kinds of cooking, and he loves his job because he cooks for people who love food. For the first year he didn’t duplicate a single menu item– a feat that required detailed notes while winging recipes with a dash of this and a glug of that. “We call this Restaurant Craig-Scheckman,” he says. “We always joke that it’s the most exclusive restaurant in town because only three people are allowed in.”

Dressed in crisp chef’s whites, Dave admits that he’s a French-style cook with regular customers who prefer Indian and Thai. The result: an admirable collection of cookbooks and nary a shoon the Food Network that he hasn’t looked to for inspiration.

“It was kind of scary at first. I used cookbooks and cooked the recipes to a T until I understood how those kinds of food really came together,” he says, advising all intrepid cooks to do the same. “It helped me to look at the whole picture of cooking and really forced me to step outside my comfort zone.”

There was only one memorable flop that everyone agreed to hate: black truffle chicken and waffles. “It came out all kinds of wrong,” he grimaces.

Dave grew up in Harrisburg, Penn., a Penn State grad who went on to earn a second degree from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York. He interned at the Rattlesnake Grill in Denver with star chef Jimmy Schmidt, and then relocated to the Restaurant at Little Nell in Aspen for his first official job. He worked for Chef George Mahaffey, who won a James Beard Award (a.k.a. the “Oscar for cooking”) while Dave was under his wing. “It was cool working for that kind of a chef,” Dave says. “What a treat to learn from people like that. Seeing people that knowhat they’re doing at the top of their game is the best. I have such reverence.”

What happens when you’re fresh out of America’s most prestigious culinary school and newly minted at the Little Nell? “Nothing,” he says. “You’re a peanut. You’re veg prep. It’s humbling. But the chefs brought me along, which was a fantastic learning experience.” And he did get to ski a lot.

After landing in Steamboat with his wife Cari, a nurse at Yampa Valley Medical Center, Dave considered opening a cooking school, took a stab at the idea of a restaurant and ended up selling wine at Vino. That worked until owners Mike Kirlan and Lisa Lesyshen got a taste of his cooking and started bragging about it to all their customers. Three years later, Dave is still cooking for the Craig-Scheckmans after they bit on Mike and Lisa’s culinary recommendation.

“(Dave) always wants to learn more and more about whatever he’s doing,” Mike says. “He came in knowing a lot about California wines, but not necessarily Rhone or Burgundy. I think it perked his curiosity. It made him more attuned to working with wine and food. A lot of chefs don’t care about that … they might drink wine but they leave that (pairing) to someone else at the restaurant.”

Dave found fast admirers in David and Gina Zedneck, too. The couple bid on three cooking classes with him at the Lowell Whiteman Primary School fundraiser last year. “We were actually in a bidding war with somebody,” Gina says. The entire family spent long afternoons cooking everything from ciabatta, cobbler, pasta and rotisserie pork loins to poached pears and lobster risotto. “The kids ask me all the time if we can cook with Chef Dave again,” Gina says. “I love that he gave us such versatile recipes. It wasn’t crazy Julia Child stuff. And I love hohe used local ingredients. He’s just so talented.”

Those talents rise to the surface like a fresh-baked soufflé around the holidays with lots of baked goods and fragrant, savory comfort food. For Dave, this time of year is the season for chunky chilis and rustic squash soups seasoned with cinnamon, clove and cardamom. He makes brown butter ice cream. He likes to sit back and savor a glass of Pinot Noir with his turkey. And his own special family dinners highlight beer-poached shrimp, preferably made with a flat lager, Old Bay, peppercorns and bay leaves. (The secret, he reveals, is to poach the shrimp, strain them off, cool the liquid and the shrimp, then put the shrimp back in the liquid to marinate.)

And Dave’s most important holiday treat of all is cookies – lots of them. No doubt, Dave’s nearly year-old son, Hudson, will appreciate that as much as the rest of his dad’s food-loving admirers. }

Merlina Magic Chocolate-Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 c. (2 sticks)butter, softened

1/2 c.vegetable shortening

1/2 c.sugar

3/4 c.firmly packed dark brown sugar

3 (+1 yolk)large eggs1 tsp.vanilla extract

2 1/2 c.all-purpose flour

1/2 c.Black cocoa (I prefer King Arthur)

3/4 c.Dutch-processed cocoa

1/2 tsp.baking soda

1/2 tsp.baking powder1 tsp.salt

1/2 tsp.espresso powder1 1/2 c.Callebeau semi-sweet chocolate chips

  • - Preheat oven to 375. Place silt pats or parchment paper on cookie sheet.

- Use kitchen-aid mixer with paddle attachment to beat butter and shortening at medium speed until creamy. Gradually add sugars, beating until fluffy. Add eggs and yolk, one at a time, waiting until each is incorporated. Scrape down bowl sides and paddle.

- Add vanilla and beat.

- In another bowl combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and espresso powder.

- Gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture and beat on low.

- Remove bowl from mixer. Using rubber spatula, lightly stir in chocolate chips.

- Using small ice cream scoop, place rounded balls on cookie sheets about 2 inches apart.

- Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until cookies are set.

    • - Let cool for 2 minutes then place on a wire rack to cool.

Beer Poached Shrimp with Roast Red Pepper Cocktail Sauce

For the Shrimp: 5 lbs. U.S. caught shrimp 16/20 count six-pack lager style beer

1/4 c Old Bay seasoning

1/4 c lemon juice, freshly squeezed

2 T salt

2 ea bay leaves

Method

-If shrimp are frozen, thaw them overnight in the refrigerator, 

-Open all the beers and pour into a large stock pot and let sit out overnight to allobeer to go flat

-The following day, bring beer to a simmer with Old Bay, lemon juice, salt and bay leaves

-While the beer is coming up to a simmer, place a medium bowl inside a larger bowl that is 1/4 full of ice and a little water. Fill another bowl with ice and water to shock shrimp

-When beer starts to boil add shrimp and alloto simmer 4-6 minutes, (pull shrimp out; they should feel firm and have lost their opaque color.)

-When shrimp are done, quickly strain them out of the liquid and into ice water to stop the cooking process-reserve the poaching liquid and chill in the bowl that sits in the larger bowl filled with ice

-As soon as the shrimp have cooled, remove them from the ice water and place in the refrigerator

-Once the poaching liquid has cooled, remove the bowl from the ice bath and place the shrimp in the poaching liquid until needed.It’s best to let the shrimp marinate for a fehours to absorb the flavors

For the Cocktail Sauce:

1 c Roasted red peppers, diced

1/2 c ketchup

1 ea celery stalk 

2 T horseradish sauce

1 Tlemon juice

2 t salt 

1 t freshly ground black pepper

1 t Worcestershire Sauce

1 t hot sauce1

 t Red wine vinegar

1/2 thoney

Method

-place all in a blender and puree until desired consistency