By Kim Fuller Published in Vail Valley Magazine
Ask Chef Fernando Ocampo for a recipe and he will give it to you, but don’t be surprised when the dish you make doesn’t taste like it did when you were dining in his restaurant. “The last ingredient I put in is 100-percent love,” shares Ocampo. And that’s Ti Amo — an Italian “I love you” that always tastes so good.
This year marks two decades of Ocampo in the Ti Amo kitchen. He just celebrated his 40th birthday, and this summer he becomes part-owner of the establishment. Ocampo’s childhood was spent in Buenavista de Cuellar, Guerrero, Mexico, and he moved to the United States in 1993 at age 16. He started in Chicago, then California, before landing in Colorado in 1995, and his work at Ti Amo began in May of 1996.
The restaurant’s original owner, Vincenzo Perucchini, hired Ocampo to prep food in the kitchen under the guidance of chef Rafael Ortiz. Ocampo soon moved into the sauté station, and after two years under the wings of others, Ortiz left and Ocampo moved into the executive chef position.
“It’s not easy,” Ocampo says of training to be a chef, “because you have to learn all the ingredients, how to make good flavors, and when you are creating dishes, you have to think of your customers and what they are going to like.”
Ti Amo’s customers are devoted diners, and their expectations are that the menu won’t ever change — and it hasn’t.
“I make specials,” Ocampo, says, “but the menu is set as the original menu, and everybody loves the food.” Ocampo loves the food, too, even after all these years. He said he’s often asked what’s his favorite Ti Amo dish. “It depends on how I feel and what I want to eat at that moment,” he says, with a laugh.
A couple of the menu items that top his list: pasta gamberetti de pesto di pomodoro — shrimp sautéed in garlic, olive oil, parsley, red pepper flakes, mushrooms and red onions in a sundried tomato pesto cream sauce and penne pasta; frutti de mare — mussels, shrimp and scallops sautéed with garlic and white wine in a spicy marinara sauce over linguine.
The chef has a taste for seafood, and remarks about a recent dinner he had at another local restaurant. “It was so good, and I ate so much,” he reveals, “that I could barely walk out.” On his days off, Ocampo does prefer to eat out rather than cook, and he said he usually lets his two kids decide where to dine. He also likes to rest on those two coveted days off, because he works from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. every other day, with only a few hours off in the afternoon to pick up his kids from school.
“I am working for those guys to make sure they have a better life, a future,” Ocampo shares about his children. “I ask them to be good students so they can get a different job. There is nothing wrong with the kitchen, but you work a lot. Many times I have to work on my days off because it’s so busy.”
Ocampo’s wife works as a server at Ti Amo, and they often provide extra help when the restaurant needs more hands. This past Valentine’s Day, Ocampo and his wife stopped by on their day off to find the kitchen and servers overwhelmingly busy, and the couple helped out in the back and front of house, respectively, until the dust had settled.
“We had to make sure the place was running well, because everybody loves Ti Amo and we need to take care of the place,” he says.
Ocampo’s kitchen staff has been with him for years, and he attributes the restaurant’s continued success to his loyal team. They craft the food for which Ti Amo has always been known, as he trained each of them the way he was trained.
“It was so difficult to learn everything, but it wasn’t impossible,” he shares. “That’s what I always tell my kids — if you see something difficult, don’t go back. Go forward and make it happen.”
It’s a commitment, and a professed love of cooking, that keep Ocampo in the Ti Amo kitchen, year after year. “If you are a chef, you have to love what you are doing,” he adds. “It doesn’t matter what you are cooking, you’re going to put in all the love.”
On July 22, 2016, Ocampo will become part owner of Ti Amo with Scott Yenerich. After 20 years of giving so much time, sweat and love to the restaurant, its food and its customers, Ocampo will finally be an owner of a place that has always been very close to his hear