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Mouthing Off

When the kitchen cooperates, 29 Mile Cantina (reviewed above) puts out some tasty fare, especially the Santa Monica chicken, which co-owner Laura Brody named after the last stop on Route 66 before you hit the Pacific.

When I made this dish at home, I pounded the chicken breasts a bit to even them out before broiling (you can also use a grill), and I added a tablespoon of butter to the oil to give it a little richer taste. The nice thing about the recipe is that it can easily be halved to serve one or multiplied to serve a hundred--just always count on two chicken breasts per person. I also recommend that you get everything ready before you start cooking, which will ensure that the chicken and the vegetables are done at the same time.

29 Mile Cantina's Santa Monica Chicken

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup vegetable oil
4 cups sliced mushrooms
2 Tbsp. crushed garlic
1/2 cup sliced red onions
1/2 cup sliced Anaheim chiles (seeds removed)
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes (canned or fresh, peeling or seeding optional)

Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper; preheat broiler. Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and add mushrooms; saute until they start to soften. Place chicken under broiler. Add garlic to skillet and cook two minutes; add red onions, chiles and tomatoes, turn heat down to medium and cook for two to three minutes, then turn heat to low to keep warm until chicken is done, about four more minutes. Place two breasts on each plate and spoon half of the vegetable mixture (including the liquid) over top. Serves two.

Serve yourself: Parker is by no means alone in suffering labor pains. Denver was already experiencing a severe labor shortage even before the latest round of restaurant openings, including the recent debuts of Panzano at 909 17th Street, P.F. Chang's at 1415 15th Street and, of course, Rainforest Cafe in the Cherry Creek Shopping Center.

When I called Nicole Cochard last month to get some last-minute information for my review of Cherry Creek's Le Delice ("Pate Animals," October 1), she told me that she and her husband, Maurice, had decided to close the cafe on Mondays because they can't find enough help. "You wouldn't believe how hard it is to get people right now," Nicole says. "And when we find them, they're so used to being able to go wherever they want that I have to let them make their own hours and put up with terrible attitudes."

Plenty of other restaurants are feeling the crunch. A few weeks ago, Le Central (112 East Eighth Avenue) turned its usual print ads into huge "Help Wanted" pleas, and numerous restaurants are using their radio spots on restaurant talk shows to extol the benefits of working for their fine establishments. "This isn't just limited to restaurants, though," says Pete Meersman, president of the Colorado Restaurant Association. "Sure, everybody in town has got the help-wanted sign up, but it's not just restaurants, and it's not just Denver. And, I should add, it's not just Colorado. With unemployment sticking for months at about 3 percent, the whole country is experiencing this problem."

Meersman adds that the large chain restaurants--he's careful not to name names, but you can insert Rainforest Cafe here--have come in and hired hundreds of employees, in the process taking a big chunk out of the available local workforce. "These restaurants aren't hiring people who are new to the industry," Meersman explains. "So they're getting them from other restaurants, and the fallout of that is that the independents are finding it tough to get people."

Making the battle even more difficult is the fact that chains are better able to offer incentives--a larger company means more flexible hours and better benefits. "We never had to offer any type of benefits at all," Nicole says. "Now we are starting to wonder if we're going to end up having to pay salaries, like they do in France. And if you think that's going to make things better in any way, take a trip over there and see how awful the service has gotten." (Having been to France this past year, I have to say I agree with her, with one amusing exception: Americans in Europe now get better service than natives because waiters know that we tip at home and usually tip abroad, too.)

Meersman doesn't think it will get to the point of salaried staffers, but he does see higher wages for waitstaffers, as well as rapid advancement for quick learners. "There just aren't many people entering the workforce," he says. "We've picked up a lot of people coming off the welfare rolls, but that's not nearly enough."

To promote interest in the restaurant industry, CRA started a job fair two years ago. "The competition now is to get people to work in restaurants instead of other industries," says Meersman, who regularly receives phone calls from other states' restaurant associations interested in creating job fairs like Colorado's. "We want people to realize that the restaurant industry offers a flexibility that isn't there in other fields. If you're a stay-at-home mom, you can pick up some extra money working a lunch shift while the kids are at school a few days a week. Heck, restaurants are so needy right now that you could work one lunch shift a week and they'd be grateful."

The CRA prez has faith that the independent restaurants will survive the labor crunch. "If the chains don't meet their projections," he explains, "they're going to close, because the rest of the chain can support their doing so. Whereas the indies--not only will they compete with the chains head-to-head, they generally will be less likely to close the doors."

Nicole Cochard isn't so sure about that. "I know of several places that are this close to closing," she says. "It's getting to the point where we're all bailing our chefs out of jail or loaning money to staffers with financial problems. And then there's the fact that they all know it's incredibly easy to find a job elsewhere, so they don't care if they're late or if they give bad service. Why should they care?"

That attitude must be what prompted Joe Sullivan to e-mail me recently. "Is it just me," Sullivan wondered, "or is the quality of service in most Denver restaurants pathetic? I'm talking scratch-the-armpit bad. I could give you twenty examples in a minute of truly awful performances in Denver's 'upscale' establishments. I've had better service at the Department of Motor Vehicles." Sullivan went on to describe a few sorry incidents, to which I could add several dozen more from the past five months alone. In fact, the service situation has gotten so bad that I hardly mention service in a review unless it's stellar, because it's become obvious that the fault isn't with the restaurant but with employees who couldn't care less.

The situation has Nicole Cochard at wit's end. "Every day," she says, "Maurice and I come into work and wonder, 'Who's going to show up for work today?'"

--Wagner

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