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It was a little tough back then," Sean Yontz, now of Vega (see review), says of his ten years with Kevin Taylor. "We all, all of us, worked 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day. I saw more of Kevin than my wife or my son. I spent my life with Kevin. We traveled together, took our vacations together. On our days off, we'd go skiing or waterskiing together." He pauses, focuses. "I owe everything to him. He gave me my career."
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Yontz worked with Taylor -- one of Denver's first full-on celebrity chefs and sole lord and master of the Kevin Taylor restaurant universe -- almost everywhere Taylor went. Dandelion (now closed), Cafe Iguana (gone), Brasserie Z (kaput), Zenith (a reincarnation of Taylor's original Zenith that took over for Brasserie Z, then also closed), Palettes(still open at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway), Jou Jou (still open in the Hotel Teatro at 1106 14th Street) and Restaurant Kevin Taylor(still open, also in the Hotel Teatro) -- everywhere except Nicois, which took the place of Zenith back in August 2001, then died a painful death on New Year's Day. Yontz became Taylor's executive chef, setting up new houses anywhere Taylor's eye settled, then putting out fires wherever trouble popped up. The two of them were close -- like brothers, the way Yontz tells it -- and that sounds like a great story, until you get to the part about Yontz leaving. The break was bad, and the two haven't spoken since the day Yontz walked out of Zenith.
After Yontz departed the Kevin Taylor empire, people predicted he'd open his own place. "Everyone expected it," Yontz says. "Everyone wanted it except me. There are these kids now who come out of culinary school, and after two years -- at twenty or whatever -- they want their own place. They want to be called chef. At 34, I wasn't ready. There was so much more for me to learn." So when Tamayo opened at 1400 Larimer Street, Yontz was in Richard Sandoval's kitchen. "I'd been talking to Richard for about a year," he explains. "I was interested in the cuisine he was doing." More to the point, Yontz was interested in the idea of an upscale Mexican/Latino restaurant. He had the foods and flavors in his blood but wasn't sure how to make them work in a white-tablecloth setting. Yontz spent a year and a half as Tamayo's chef de cuisine, cooking Sandoval's menus and Sandoval's food -- which is exactly what he wanted to do. "I went to learn," he says simply, "and I learned a ton about Mexican food."
But didn't it bother him to be forever cooking someone else's food?
When I ask, Yontz doesn't answer right away, and when he does, he doesn't give the answer I expect: He says no. When he was working with Taylor, "it was all Kevin's food." And when he was working at Tamayo, it was all Sandoval's food. "It was always someone else's food, but I wasn't ready yet to do my own thing." And even now -- now that he is ready and now that he is doing his own thing at Vega -- "I'm doing what all these guys taught me," Yontz says.
When he left Tamayo, he left with Marco Colantonio -- Sandoval's champion front-of-the-house man who'd been brought in to keep an eye on the joint when Sandoval himself was off checking up on his other restaurants in New York, Florida and San Francisco. Yontz and Colantonio inked a deal with Michael Payne -- who'd stepped in to run Sacre Bleu after his former wife left and still owns the building at 410 East Seventh Avenue -- and Vega was born. The three partners survived a rough opening last October that suffered from rushed training and very high expectations, and they were just settling into a routine when Colantonio bailed.
He and Colantonio had "different visions" about what the restaurant should be, Yontz says.
Now essentially on his own (Payne stays out of day-to-day operations), Yontz is happy. He paid his dues working at the right hand of the best guys he could find and made his bones in some top-class houses. He has a good staff under him -- many of whom have been with him since his Kevin Taylor days -- and "they understand where I'm trying to go and what I'm trying to do," he says. He's working hard. He's in the kitchen every day and every night, just like he's always been, but it's his kitchen now, on histerms. And finally, that's what makes all the difference.
Two degrees of separation: So where did the après-Vega Colantonio go? Initially, the word here at Bite Me HQ was that he'd be doing restaurant-consulting work and his first client would be Cielo(1109 Lincoln Street, in the old Denver Buffalo Company space), which is owned by Curt Sims and Pam Savage, the couple who brought us Lime (1424 Larimer Street). But now Colantonio's role has expanded.
Here's how he describes it: In the middle of the construction mess (the space is being redone in a contemporary minimalist style, requiring the services of a feng shui master), Savage set out a lunch for everybody that was so good, it convinced Colantonio that he wanted to be a part of the place. "I was so blown away by her passion and simplicity," Colantonio tells me, "that about a week after entering into the consulting arrangement, I just told them, 'I want to run this restaurant.'"
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