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Chef Jun Makino's resumé may boast a connection to Jean-Louis Palladin (see review, page 65), but he's not the only hometown boy who's made good outside of the Rocky Mountain West. Denver's kitchen community is chock-full of chefs who've done time with some of the food world's serious heavy-hitters. Even so, I don't think anyone else in town could list as many Michelin stars on his curriculum vitae as Frank Bonanno.
Forget, for a moment, the two side-by-side houses he currently runs -- Mizuna and Luca d'Italia -- and all the honors that have been heaped upon them. Forget that he worked in the kitchens of both Mel's Restaurant and Bar and the late Rattlesnake Grill. Forget everything you know or have heard about Frank Bonanno, and imagine him back in his journeyman days, deep in the weeds on a busy Saturday, head down, knife in hand, the low man on the galley totem pole working the amuse station at Rick Tramonto's super-high-end Chicago restaurant, Tru.
Imagine it, because that's where Bonanno was last week, burning up a few of his incredibly rare days off by banging out orders in one of the top-rated restaurants in the country.
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"To tell you the truth, I was getting a little bit burned out," he says. "I was getting tired. You know, I'm fucking here cooking every night, at both places, and it's great. I love it. I don't think the quality of what we're doing has ever been better." But still, it was time for a vacation. And while most workingmen might have fantasized about a week on some island named after a French saint, with native girls bringing umbrella drinks, what Bonanno wanted to do with his time away from work was work -- just somewhere else.
It was his wife, Jacqueline, who set things up, e-mailing Tramonto to say that they were going to be in the area and that her husband wanted to spend a little time in Tru's kitchen. "When he e-mailed back and said yes," Bonanno recalls, "I said I'd do anything. I'd work anywhere." What he got was a return to his line-cook days -- two nights working amuses, two nights working the fish station, and an inside peek at the kind of kitchen most chefs only dream about -- that had him pitching in on the unique, off-menu ten-course tastings for which Tramonto's house has become justifiably famous.
"Tru is an amazing restaurant," Bonanno says. "You could have an eight-top come in, all order the fish-tasting menu, and the only thing the servers ask is if there's any allergies, any likes or dislikes. And every person would get a different menu."
That's eighty different courses for one table. And for Bonanno, this was a vacation.
"They have an actual menu," he continues, still on a high sixteen hours after his plane landed back in Denver. "It's prix fixe only. So three courses -- appetizer, entree and dessert. But then there's two amuse bouches. One's a spoon, the other is a small plate with four amuses, and then the caviar stair that everyone gets. So it's three courses, but really six."
The caviar stair, he explains, is a spiral glass staircase set with pickled onion, egg, capers, roe and then Osetra, Sevruga, Beluga or black Iranian caviar. Everyone who eats at Tru gets one. And just the plates (if you can even call them plates) cost $200 apiece. "You think the dishwasher loses his job if he drops one?" Bonanno asks.
He needs very little prompting to describe the rest of Tru's fare: the high-concept, highly stylized foams and emulsions, the six varieties of foie gras prepared nightly. "It was fun to just see all that food, you know? The guys in the kitchen, they get away with a lot. I watched them cut three lobes a night -- one-, one-and-a-half-ounce portions all done these different ways. Here at Mizuna, we cut a three-and-a-half-, four-ounce portion for sixteen bucks, and you'd think it would be flying out the door, but it isn't," he says, looping foie through his own kitchen before returning to Tru. "One night, we had a table order an all-meat tasting, and he wanted it all well. Nothing raw. There were some giggles. But I was looking around to see, and really, no one cared. It was just food to them. They are so happy to do anything for anybody. It just didn't matter what it was. Really, it was the nicest kitchen I've ever been in. The nicest crew, the happiest, ever."
But Thomas Keller's kitchen at the French Laundry in Napa, where Bonanno spent four months after leaving Mel's, was also nice, he remembers. I've heard it referred to as a monastery for cooks, a temple of absolute, quiet dedication to the gospel according to Keller, and nothing Bonanno says contradicts that. He also talks about working pastry at the Gramercy Tavern in New York (where the crew was nice, but politically cutthroat), and then about Restaurant Daniel, also in the Big Apple, where the kitchen was full of "the meanest SOBs ever."