John Sisson always knew he wanted to be a cook. He got his start as a teenager working at the Rainbow Hotel and Cafe in Hotchkiss, now marked by a faded sign on the side of the two-story historic brick building.
Sisson left Hotchkiss to attend body shop school in Denver, but missed cooking. At 18 he got his first break at the upscale Fireside Inn Restaurant in Glenwood Springs. At the age of 20, he got his first head chef job at Stromberg's Restaurant, a fine-dining establishment located in the basement of an 1880s building in downtown Aspen. "I couldn't believe I got the job," said Sisson, whose boss at the Fireside recommended him.
Aspen was already gaining notoriety as a ritzy ski town, and the rich and famous flocked there to enjoy the best skiing and dining in the world. During his time there he cooked meals for the Aspen elite, Hollywood stars, world leaders and corporate executives. He worked in and managed kitchens in some of the top restaurants, including the Aspen Meadows, Aspen Golf Course and Pomegranate Inn. He catered for Andy Warhol, cooked for Margaret Thatcher, the Queen of Jordan, George Bush senior and junior, and former state Lieutenant Governor Nancy Dick, who was from Aspen.
For several years he worked at the home of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, making Middle Eastern dishes like paella and recipes using lamb and chicken and lots of curry and rice. "I cooked a lot of rice in my time, but believe me, they bring new meaning to cooking rice," he said. "They were very particular."
He also got to know Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. In a photo from the late 1990s or early 2000s he's dressed in a snow-white chef's jacket and a white ball cap with red lettering and flanked by the former president and first lady at Bandar's Starwood house. "I really liked Carter," he said. "I really liked his land conservation efforts."
While working for the prince he met North Fork resident Betty Majnik, who was commuting to Aspen to work for Bandar. In the late 1990s he moved to Paonia, and in 2005 they bought The Diner.
The Diner closed last May after 11 years of operation. Sitting in one of the booths of the empty diner, which is opening soon under new owners, Sisson reminisced about his career, the people he met and worked with, and the fun he had. He talked about some of the young cooks he helped get started in the business. There were those who said they wanted to make a living by cooking, he said. He said he could tell which ones were serious just by working with them.
The closing of The Diner marked the end of his professional career, but he said he still cooks for himself -- most recently a breakfast of ribeye steak and eggs. Sisson said he's enjoying retirement. When asked if he would consider cooking for the new owner of the diner, he just chuckled. If he wanted to cook, he said, "I wouldn't have sold The Diner."