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It was the end of my third meal at Indigo. The dinner plates had been cleared, the white tablecloth combed down. While Julie -- my cover for this night's clandestine activities -- and I were picking at the rag ends of the dessert we'd shared, I waited for the hammer to fall. Our server had just walked off with the check, and I'd done something I never do: handed over a credit card in my own name. I watched as he opened the little black folder, glanced at the card, looked at our table with a peculiar blend of excitement and dawning horror, then almost leapt for the kitchen.
I wasn't blowing my cover for kicks. Getting fawned over in public doesn't make my soufflé rise like it does for some people: I much prefer the juvenile thrill of getting in and out of a place commando-style, unrecognized and treated like any other Johnny Paycheck. But Indigo was different. Ben Alandt, the sous chef, was one of maybe three restaurant guys in town who could pick me out of a crowd if he had to -- and now that my business with Indigo was done, I wanted to congratulate him for two great meals, one of which easily slid into the strata of the truly exceptional.
Our waiter came back to the table, all whispers and conspiratorial smiles. "Is Ben here tonight?" I asked.
6120 Barnes Road
Colorado Springs, CO 80922
Category: Bars and Clubs
Region: Southern Colorado
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Shrimp pizza $11
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Hanger steak $18
Pork tenderloin $17
His smile wilted. "No," he said. "But Ian, the chef, is. He'd like to speak with you, if that's okay."
And the first thing that Ian Kleinman told me was that Ben was gone.
Kitchen work isn't like filing in an office or punching a cash register all day, and a great sous chef (like a good prep cook or even a trusted dishwasher) isn't someone who can be replaced with just any shmoe off the street. For a chef, your sous is a partner, a confidant, the only guy who really gets what's going on after fourteen tough hours deep in the weeds and down in the trenches. Your sous sees you more than you see your wife and kids, knows you better than a brother, stands by you through good times and bad. And when a chef loses a good sous, it's like losing his right hand, left nut and best friend all at the same time.
Hanging on the side of a refrigerator in Indigo's kitchen was a sheet of paper titled "Ian and Ben's Daily Bread," a list of rules and reminders that Ian, Ben and their crew lived by. Not the easy ones, like "Remember to wash your hands after taking a leak," but the hard stuff. Always give every table the absolute best you've got, remember that we're lucky, that we're doing what we love every night -- that kind of stuff. They used to read that list every day when they came in, but Ben ignored number three: "We've always got each other's backs." He walked. It wasn't the business that chased him off, but the only other thing that can drive a born kitchen pro out of his spot on the line: girl trouble. Last anyone heard, he was in Portland.
Ben's departure was sudden, and Ian was heartbroken and more than a little pissed about it. "When I got this place, Ben was the guy I called," he said. "I knew him, we'd been friends, and I knew we were the guys for this kitchen."
And he was right. They were.
After longtime restaurateur Larry Herz took over the Cherry Creek space that was home to the much-loved Cafe Papillon until chef/owner Radek Cerny closed it last summer, he faced a real challenge to transform the place successfully. The first step was to get an important chef, which he did by bringing Ian Kleinman over from the Hilltop Cafe in Golden. And Ian's first move was to bring in Ben Alandt from 1515 Restaurant, where he'd worked sous to Olav Peterson.
At Indigo's December opening, Ian and Ben came out swinging with a streetfighter's sensibility -- hitting first and hitting hard, while trying to distinguish Indigo in a restaurant scene that was getting jammed up with fussy, high-concept New American this and fusion that. While Herz would still get people coming in looking for the old-guard sweetbreads and eggs Benny, these guys were cooking up indigo popcorn with sesame butter and wasabi peas that would send customers home with their tongues stained blue. They served calamari fried in masa dough like squid tamales with fresh mozzarella and smoked-tomato aioli, and garnished plates with a seawater gelée. Every move announced in a clear, smirking, smart-ass voice that Papillon was dead.
Not every punch landed, but six months out, Indigo was still standing, and its accuracy was improving. They had good weeks and bad weeks, but as the kitchen found its groove, everything came together. And came together so well that through three meals at Indigo, I never realized that Ben had bailed. Ian hadn't had a night off since he'd lost his right hand, but he and the crew were still standing. Still fighting.