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Let me tell you something about chefs that doesn't get a lot of play on the Food Network: They're survivors. In their climb up the ladder from wherever they began to wherever they top out, they've probably stepped on a lot of necks, taken on a certain mercenary mindset and, in some cases, been forced to learn skills that would have made Machiavelli blush. Chefs in their element -- which is to say in the kitchen, in command of a brigade and all that entails -- have to understand the nuts and bolts of commerce, the psychology of supply and demand; they must be crack negotiators (honing their skills on everything from the produce order to scheduling dishwashers) and good teachers, have an obsessive/compulsive streak about organization, and possess the tough-love leadership qualities of Patton as played by George C. Scott. It's not an easy job, and most of the chefs who can list ten years in The Life on their resumés are not so much artists and bosses and businesspeople as they are forces of nature.
30 S. Broadway
Denver, CO 80203
Region: Central Denver
What they aren't is cute. They're not cuddly catchphrase-spouting Wookies in white jackets and thousand-dollar haircuts, or pretty-boy model wannabes puttering around on Vespas and cooking apricot chicken for their mates on a Friday night.
They're pros, like Jennifer Jasinski. She's tough and talented and good at her job, and if her first restaurant (see review, page 54) is stumbling a bit right now? So what? Second films are tough on sophomore directors. Second novels kill writers. And second menus are a serious bitch. Since you give it your whole heart the first time, what are you going to do for a followup?
As a critic, I may have problems with Jasinski's new menu -- but as a trend-watcher, it gives me comfort. A true chef has a no-pun-intended gut-level understanding of economics and market forces that most Wall Street traders would kill for. Every night, a chef watches people eat -- and because eating is 90 percent psychology and 10 percent keen advertising, that chef can see long before anyone else where tastes are going. And Rioja is now perfectly positioned to jump in whatever direction tastes point. Pizza, pasta, small plates, big plates, cheese plates, meat plates, an adaptable wine list, quick-turn seating and plenty of carefully price-pointed apps for the twitchy Larimer Square foot traffic.
Over the past fifteen years, we've seen comfort food come and go; a resurgence in fine dining followed by an almost inevitable retreat predicated by a lingering recession. Coming down from their white-tablecloth high, smart chefs moved first in the direction of the French bistro/brasserie model, and then -- when it seemed as though major food cities were becoming too top-weighted with precious Francophilia -- began casting around for fresh influences. They settled on Spain.
Why? Because Spain is cool. Because the Spanish really know how to eat. Because their cuisine can be seen as an enthusiastic blend of haute and peasant fares keyed to an entirely different dining model. Going out for dinner in Spain is neighborhood-centric and an all-night commitment -- two things that Americans don't understand yet, but that American chefs love the sound of. What's more, Spanish cuisine offers an excuse to shrink portion sizes and bulk up menus with things that are fun to cook.
So tapas and small plates became the Next Big Thing. In Denver, Swimclub32, Deluxe, The 9th Door and Somethin' Else are all dedicated to the form. Adega recently went to small plates. Frasca is arguably getting into the market, with its decidedly Italian take on a haute-casual grazing menu. And if that's what the public decides it wants, Rioja is ready, too.
Other restaurateurs have used a different approach to survive in the shark tank. Charlie Master set Brix apart from the crowd with his whole "anti-bistro" thing. By giving his place a punk-rock offset -- admitting, yeah, we're in the Creek, but look: no tablecloths -- he firmly fixed himself as the antithesis of all the fern-bar pretension that surrounded him. He staffed his kitchen with cooks, not chefs, and made a menu that was decidedly downscale and undeniably fun. Oh, yeah -- and cheap, too.
And then there's Goose Sorenson, now sole owner and exec at Solera. In addition to flitting around the country like some kind of cranked-up mallard (he's cooking at the James Beard House in June with a whole gaggle of big names, grabbing a bite at Thomas Keller's New York outpost, Per Se, then flying back to Colorado and heading straight up to Aspen to do the Food & WineClassic, second year running) and chasing the dream of bona fide food-world celebrity, he's still found time to spin off his talents at Solera (where the board is all foie gras and pinot) into a second venture just down the street at the Ivy Cafe (bagels and coffee). Why? Because there was money to be made.
Two weeks ago, I caught Sorenson's former partner Brian Klinginsmith on the eve of his final exit from Denver and the food scene in general. He was in the kitchen at Ivy overseeing a brand-new crew. "What a transition, man," he said. "I mean, I went from wine junkie to bagel whore, right? And this is just so totally different than what we've been doing at Solera. But we're kicking ass now. This thing is huge."
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