This is a story about an apple-sized brain tumor and lump crab beignets. It’s about a 32-year-old man, along with his wife and two young daughters, fathoming the unfathomable. And butter. Because any good food story involves butter.
But let’s not start with the tumor. (It’s kind of the villain in this story, anyway.) Let’s start with chef Patrick Ayres and The Periodic Table, a restaurant that recently opened in Steamboat Springs.
Ayres is a chef with big-city ambition and small-town values. That’s a big juxtaposition there, one that’s surely spurred conflict and turbulence and tough decisions throughout his career. He and his wife, Kaylee, left Steamboat Springs (where they both attended high school) for Seattle in 2009 so he could cook at more prominent restaurants and they could be closer to Kaylee’s dad. Ayres is a talented, driven chef, and he whizzed his way up the kitchen ladder to executive sous chef at the highly-acclaimed Canlis.
In October 2012, the Ayres’s first daughter, Paisley, was born, which was perfect timing because they’d just about had enough of Seattle’s rain, anyway. The couple wanted to raise their children in Colorado near their Steamboat family, and so the three of them traded Seattle and Canlis for De Beque, Colorado (population: 500) and a ranch.
Ayres was the executive chef at the very high-end High Lonesome Ranch for almost two years before he left to start his own project, Cloverdale, back in Steamboat Springs. Alas, the high-reaching, tasting-menu-only restaurant didn’t last long, closing in October 2018, but not before garnering him some big fans, including Steamboat restaurateur Phillips Armstrong.
“I was completely blown away by Cloverdale. I was one of their biggest cheerleaders,” said Armstrong, who owns two other restaurants in town. “I took my staff there, I took managers there, I just thought it was incredible. When it closed, I thought that’s a huge loss to our town, and then finding out that he had a tie here because his wife wanted to raise their family here — it was a huge opportunity for me. He’s a guy with more talent than Steamboat should have.”
So Armstrong set out to woo Ayres. He was developing a new restaurant for Catamount Ranch, a golf community about three miles outside of town. He knew that he needed a really special concept to get his fellow residents, who aren’t typically keen on venturing outside of downtown for dinner, to make that extra effort to get there.
That’s where The Periodic Table (but not yet the cancer) enters the story. The Periodic Table was the answer to the question of how to get Steamboat residents to drive those three miles to dinner. And Armstrong needed Ayres in order to pull it off.
“I thought, there’s no way he’s going to do it,” Armstrong said of getting a chef of Ayres’ caliber to join the restaurant. “I knew the only way to get people to come out to a location that was outside of town was with a concept that was really compelling. I conceived what Periodic Table was, but I’d need a really talented chef to pull that off.”
What Periodic Table was, and is, is a restaurant that re-invents itself twice a year. It changes everything — the food, the drinks, the theme, the era, the atmosphere — every six months. This means that it can go from, say, a modern Japanese izakaya to an ancient Roman trattoria with the same crew and in the same space within the same year.
The opportunity to stretch his culinary skills so vastly appealed to Ayres. He was in.
“It’s exciting for me to bounce around from concept to concept and try different things. We can do anything, we can go anywhere in the world that I’d like to learn,” he said.
That was spring.
Ayres was gung-ho about the concept, presenting Armstrong with a hand-written list of 20 stellar themes for Periodic to start with. They settled on a 1920s New York City supper club theme, and Ayres hit the road and the books. He devoured old restaurant menus at the New York Public Library’s archives, researching what people were eating then, and devising ways he could modernize and elevate those dishes.
But since February, strange things had been happening to him. Ayres started experiencing dizzy spells, first only when he’d get hit in the head playing in a basketball league, but then more frequently — when he was cooking, when he was just hanging out with his family. The dizzy spells got more and more frequent, striking him sometimes 12-15 times a day. It got so bad that the otherwise-healthy 32-year-old saw a doctor about what he thought was vertigo.
Doctors assumed it was an inner ear issue, but when they couldn’t find anything wrong, they sent Ayres in for an MRI. You know, just in case.
“They called that same day,” Ayres said. “‘We found a mass on the front of your brain.’ That’s how I found out.”
That was summer.
“My initial reaction was fear,” Kaylee said. “They couldn’t give us any details on grade, tumor type or treatment options until we got in to see the specialist. So for a month, we didn’t really know what we were dealing with. That was really difficult and scary.”
Eventually, Ayres headed to Denver to see a neurosurgeon at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. The good news was that the tumor was operable, and so brain surgery was scheduled for Sept. 27.
Doctors sliced open Ayres’s skin above his right ear, carving an arc over the top of his head and down to his hairline. They peeled back the skin and snipped through his facial muscles. They cut a window of a hole into his skull so they could reach and extract the tumor.
“I felt like I got hit by a train. When I woke up, I was fine, but the week after was pretty rough. Like I had the worst hangover ever, every day. It was like that for a straight week,” Ayres said.
Doctors were able to remove 95% of the tumor during the surgery, but the other 5% was too close to Ayres’s motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls movement. They didn’t want him to wake up paralyzed, so that 5% will always be with him. The surgery was the first time doctors had access to the tumor, so it was also the first time they could biopsy the cells. While the surgery went about as well as it could have, the biopsy results were dire. It was stage 3 astrocytoma, an incurable cancer.
“It came back that some of the cells were stage 3, and at that point, I sat him down and was like ‘Hey, do you want to step away and focus on yourself and your family and your health?’” Armstrong said. “If it was me, I wouldn’t have handled it as well as he has. I don’t know anyone who would have handled it as well as he has.”
Stepping away from the restaurant was never really a consideration for Ayres. Of course he wanted to continue cooking.
“Phil was really flexible and good to our family,” he said. “I was basically out of commission for a month, which was tough for me. I was itching to do something.”
While his dedication was admirable, it wasn’t easy on those helping him through his recovery.
“Days after surgery, having him be so insistent to go to work when he couldn’t even get out of bed was frustrating, to say the least,” Kaylee said. “He thought he was capable of doing more than he was, and he couldn’t stand lying in bed when there were things to be done … He lives and breathes for his work.”
About a month after the surgery, Ayres started a six-week round of radiation and chemo. The kicker — as if he needed a kicker with a brain tumor and all — was that the radiation was in Edwards. So every day, Monday through Friday, Kaylee, his mom or a friend picked him up at 12:30 p.m. and made the hour and a half drive (each way) to Edwards.
“I’m just really tired. Like having a newborn baby tired all the time,” he said of the radiation treatments.
All the while, he’s still the executive chef of this impressive, demanding, soon-to-open restaurant. He’s there in the mornings, before the radiation, and returns at night, after the radiation. His last week of radiation, actually, corresponded with the last week of training for The Periodic Table’s staff.
That left Armstrong in a tough position. The chef he pursued so hard to command his kitchen was gone five afternoons a week in the month and a half leading up to the restaurant’s opening — not to mention that Ayres is battling exhaustion and incurable brain cancer. It’s been a delicate balance, rooting for his friend and chef, but also running a restaurant.
“It’s the most difficult professional navigation that I’ve had,” Armstrong said. “Each day I’m like, ‘OK, we doing this?’ I’ve been trying to both support him and give him a viable exit plan if it’s needed.”
That was fall.
Winter is a little more uncertain. The Periodic Table opened Dec. 18 with a refined-retro menu of beer-battered lump crab beignets, crispy chicken a la king with gnocchi and buttery sherry cream sauce, pimento cheese creamed corn and sharp New York-style cheesecake. On the experience side, the restaurant is full of extras like champagne poured upon arrival, a martini cart rolling through the dining room and baked Alaska set afire tableside. It’s booked through early January, but who knows what will happen after that. It will close for the shoulder season in late March before re-opening in June 2020 with an entirely new theme.
Ayres’ future is a little more difficult to describe. The 5% of the tumor that doctors couldn’t remove remains plastered to his brain, and it could very likely grow. He’ll get MRIs every six months for the rest of his life to make sure it’s not growing, but if it does, he’ll have to have another surgery to remove it. The only certainty seems to be that he’ll be in the kitchen, working that line, searing steaks and whipping garlic herb butter. Night after night. No matter what.
“I don’t know if it’s some type of triumphant thing, or something I’m trying to accomplish,” Ayres said. “I don’t know. I don’t want to let it win or stop us from what we’re doing. From the beginning, I said to treat me as if nothing’s going on. I am going to do this.”
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