For Goldener Hirsch executive chef Nicolas Lebas, a career in the culinary arts was practically inevitable. As a child in Lyon, France, a city about five hours southeast of Paris, Lebas’ first memories of the kitchen were, quite literally, sweet.
“My first recollection? Chocolate cake,” said the 43-year-old Lebas, who joined the Goldener Hirsch in April 2022. “I grew up in the bakery with my grandmother and my grandfather, who was a professional baker all his life. I loved the croissant batter when I was a kid. My grandmother was from Italy, my grandpa was from France—and it was no choice for me then to be a chef, you know? They didn’t leave me a chance. I was part of the industry, my mother as well. She was a waitress for as long as I can remember. So sometimes, I would come to the restaurant and while waiting for her to finish her shift, I would sneak a peek into the kitchen.”
It’s no surprise then that the first recipe Lebas perfected was a Black Forest cake. Yet culinary school wasn’t easy. He remembers struggling in math and language, but he credits his talent and a photographic memory for carrying him through. After graduating he secured a job in a busy Lyon restaurant making salads and desserts from scratch, but perhaps surprisingly found himself unsatisfied. A friend of his mother’s connected him with the executive chef at a restaurant in Los Cabos, Mexico, and a 19-year-old Lebas headed overseas on what became an unexpected culinary journey.
“If you asked me to do that now, I would say you’re crazy, but if I have to say something to J-1s, the (international) interns who come here to do the same thing, I say it’s the best thing that can ever happen to you,” said Lebas, whose Mexico stint lasted four years before he moved on to jobs at resorts in San Antonio, Texas, and Orlando, Florida, where he held his first executive chef position. “I learned Spanish, I learned English, I learned skills, I learned different types of cooking. It was culture shock, no doubt about this. But it made me who I am today.”
Prior to arriving in Utah, Lebas was the executive chef at Barnsley Resort in Adairsville, Georgia, where he was named 2019 Culinarian of the Year by the Georgia Hotels & Lodging Association. But he was actually getting ready to go back to France when Auberge Resorts, which took over management of Goldener Hirsch in November 2021, reached out about the position at the Deer Valley-based property.
“I think what I’m talented at is researching the style of cuisine, learning the classics and just kind of tweaking them, modernizing them, implementing some European techniques to it to make dishes more appealing to the eye, as well,” Lebas explained about the charm of creating the Alpine-themed menu that still pays homage to the Austrian cuisine the Hirsch is traditionally known for. “What was so interesting here is that the buildings speak for themselves, and my style is more modern and clean. But by mixing that with the Old World style, you can create something that’s really different.”
Another hallmark of Lebas’ cuisine is an attention to the ingredients themselves, which he highlights through various techniques and presentations. Take his winter asparagus risotto, which featured a grilled asparagus purée, a blanched asparagus garnish and an asparagus cream to finish it off. He also loves introducing the unexpected, like using house-baked cardamom milk bread and gooey raclette cheese on the Goldener stag bison wagyu cheeseburger.
“I don’t want to cook the same burger as the one on Main Street ,” he said. “I will always try to find ways to do something that you cannot find anywhere else.”
Lebas also has been charmed by Utah’s farm-to-table scene and has particularly enjoyed cultivating repeat customers, especially locals. To that end, he looks to create summer and fall menus with local produce in mind and craft experiences that will attract residents and visitors alike. That includes the return of the Goldener Summer Market, held Saturday afternoons on the patio at Silver Lake and featuring small bites, drinks, games, live music and pop-up retail offerings.
For Lebas, however, it all comes back to the food, which is where he’s able to express his creativity while also fulfilling an important mentor role for his staff.
“The freedom is one of the reasons why I’m here working for this company, because they give the chefs the freedom to express themselves,” Lebas said. “And also, it’s nice because I can hire chefs and a team that want to learn and want to create and become chefs as well. My goal is to teach them so they can grow and take over, or go on their own and become who they want to be.”