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Midway through my first meal at Vega -- somewhere between cleaning up every scrap of delicious oxtail tamal and toppling a pretty but ill-conceived Napoleon of salmon ceviche, thin-sliced cucumber and jicama, and moving it around the plate to make it look like I'd enjoyed it -- I had one of those moments. A pause, mid-sentence, when I suddenly went dumb and blind. It must have been brief, because my dinner companion either didn't notice or was polite enough not to mention that I'd left a part of my standard cautionary discourse on the future of Denver dining dangling in the air, right alongside my salmon-laden fork.
I recovered quickly and continued on with my blabbing about produce suppliers and celebrity chefs, but had this been the movie of my life rather than the real thing, that moment -- that pause -- would have been where the studio's foley man inserted a wooshing sound: Hollywood's way of announcing a flashback.
Sean Yontz, executive chef and owner (along with hands-off partner Michael Payne) of the five-month-old Vega, is young and truly on his own for the first time. For ten years, he cast his shadow by the reflected light of Kevin Taylor at his most luminescent, then spent another year and a half under the halo of Richard Sandoval at Tamayo. In Denver, that's some heavy-duty street cred to bring to the table, so it was big news last year when Yontz and top-notch frontman Marco Colantonio left Tamayo to move into the space that once held Sacre Bleu, whose closure was in itself big news. Yontz was finally getting a kitchen of his own, an exec position unfettered by anyone's apron strings, and if Colantonio's involvement drew attention, Yontz drew even more, because this was finally his big shot.
410 E. 7th Ave.
Denver, CO 80203
Category: Parks and Outdoors
Region: Central Denver
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Salmon ceviche: $9
Oxtail tamal: $10
Albondigas ravioli: $9
Duck confit: $24
Angus ribeye: $26
Poached salmon: $22
And then Colantonio left Vega. More press.
Six weeks later, a friend and I were sitting at Vega's bar having a drink before dinner, when Yontz stopped by. He knew my friend, but he didn't know me, and we joked a minute about the parking situation (rough if you spurn the valet) and how he'd redone the space (beautifully, with streamlined yet intimate seating, starched white linens and dark wood chairs). And then she asked the big question: How were things with Marco gone?
Translation: It's your show now, kid. All yours. And how does that make you feel?
Yontz smiled, folded his arms, and said...something. I don't remember his words exactly, but they were polite, politic, confident. It was a stock answer to a question he'd already been asked by everyone in town. He was happy, sure, but there was something in his look, his stance, the way his eyes jumped around to take in the entirety of his kingdom as he answered, that struck me as strange. And it took me until that point midway through dinner to figure out what it was.
He was scared. Not a childish, monsters-under-the-bed scared, because the guy's a good cook, maybe a great cook, and if there are any monsters lurking anywhere in his house, he's got the chops to whoop 'em. It was fear-of-the-unknown scared. What-the-fuck-happens-next scared. A very real, grown-up, visceral kind of fear that came with the realization that no matter what happens, good or bad, it's coming on his watch and landing squarely on his shoulders.
Which is why he was in the kitchen on a Monday night, rather than being sacked out on the couch with a cold beer on the chef's traditional night off. Which is why he's been in the kitchen every night for the last five months except for one: his son's birthday. Which is why he was working the front of the house in his starched jacket and clean white apron, checking the floor, watching the bar and casting backward glances toward the kitchen, where -- I'll bet you anything -- there hung a dirty, stained apron that he'd been wearing since noon and would wear until well past midnight after returning to his element.
I know because I've been there...or close enough. At 26, I was given my first house, free and clear, and absolute despotic control over everything save the bar. Front of the house, back of the house, kitchen, floor staff, menu, ordering and sourcing, food cost, labor cost, redesign and installation cost -- all me. If the toilets exploded on a Saturday night, it was me who called the plumber and threatened to burn his trailer down if he didn't get there five minutes ago to fix them. If my crew revolted, it was me who had to step in to soothe egos and calm nerves. I worked six days a week, fourteen hours a day, and had a short day on Sunday when I only did ten hours. I saw my fiancée maybe an hour a day, and she eventually went for a friend of mine (not entirely because of the hours: I was also a drunken prick when I wasn't behind the stoves). I somehow managed to catch pneumonia, cracked two ribs from coughing, worked while my brain boiled with a 105-degree fever and refused to leave until I finally passed out in a hallway and one of my prep cooks carried me out of the kitchen.