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Chef Patrick Dupays is in the kitchen. I can see him through the big four-pane window at the end of the line, working a pan with one hand, giving directions with the other -- his fingers loose, his arm moving like a conductor's trying to keep a runaway orchestra on tempo, a crooked smile hung from his narrow face.
2239-2245 W. 30th Ave.
Denver, CO 80211
Region: Northwest Denver
Beet carpaccio: $8.50
Croque Parisienne: $9.50
Tarte tatin: $6
When he turns to take something from the dry racks behind him, his eyes never leave the burners. He finishes his pan with a flourish -- adding salt or pepper or rough-chopped parsley with a rising wave of his hand, which is bent at the wrist, thumb running along the pads of his fingers to give an instinctive gut measure to his ingredients, feeling every grain or leaf. This move is exactly the opposite of Emeril's trademark "Bam!" -- a motion and exuberant outburst that launched a chubby, Jersey-born Cajun empire, and one that, if performed by any cook in any serious kitchen, would get him beaten no matter how hard he tried to sell it.
But this fluttery lift of the hand (actually a method of timed measuring, like a good bartender's long pour) and brush of fingers and thumb (which also serves to separate grains of salt or bits of herb gummed together by the humidity of a working kitchen) is a mark of comfortable professionalism. It's the rock star's D-chord, the dancer going en point -- a move done a hundred times a night, a million times before. No one teaches a working cook this gesture. It comes over time and becomes automatic, as natural as breathing.
Gunslingers twirl their Colts before seating them back in their holsters. Carpenters flip their hammers in the air and catch them by the handle every time. Cooks working a busy line can't help but put a little english on their plates as they pass them to the rail, spinning them so they curl back just at the edge of the pass. I used to be able to toss a raw egg and catch it on the blade of a spatula so that it would split, the white drooling out one side onto a hot grill, the yolk staying locked in the shell on the other. (The secret is spinning the egg beforehand, so centrifugal force pushes the yolk to one end.) Every tradesman comfortable with his materials develops tricks, gimmicks and stunts that display his familiarity with the tools of his trade. Dupays's no-look grab for something in his mise en place, the graceful conservation of motion on a line in claustrophobically close quarters with two other bodies, that simple rise of his hand -- these all tell me that he knows what he's doing. You don't get those moves in your rookie season. You've got to earn them.
Dupays is a big guy -- tall and rail-thin like a bicycle racer, with tattoos on his arms and a backward, snap-brim black Southie hat on his head. He wears black T-shirts to work, black pants, a folded apron when he's in the kitchen, but no whites, no check pants. He smiles as he descends the half-flight of stairs leading down from the elevated kitchen at Z Cuisine, the bistro he opened this summer at the edge of the Highland neighborhood. He stops to peek into the small bakery case at the end of the short bar, stops to say hello (bonjour and comment ça va, actually) to friends poring over the short, very French wine list. When something falls off the back bar behind him (a tasting glass and a bottle of fleur de sel, both of which bounce without breaking), he laughs. And as he excuses himself to go back up to his kitchen, he pauses at the foot of the stairs, takes a quick look around the small dining room with every seat filled twenty minutes before the posted closing time, nods and walks back up the stairs: a man totally, effortlessly in control of his tiny, bright and butter-colored kingdom.
The best cassoulet I ever had was made in one of my own kitchens by an insane, drunken Russian baker who didn't even know what cassoulet was. And technically, what he made wasn't a real cassoulet -- not the slow-cooked, rich, beautifully rustic winter farmhouse stew that's probably the most recognizable of all the French cuisine granmère -- but a wild mess of leftovers and bits and pieces that he would cook in a lidded stockpot sealed with raw bread dough, the components coming together to approximate cassoulet because ours was a rigorously French kitchen that produced rigorously French leftovers. Shredded duck confit and soft, prepped-for-service white beans that we used for à la minute purées; fresh mustard greens, concasse tomatoes and brown veal stock; sausages he brought from home in his pockets and fresh herbs he used for making rosemary boules and sage-scented flatbread -- he'd toss these all in the pot at 2 a.m. when he came into work, eat about two hours later, and leave any leftovers for the next day. The cooks and I would inevitably steal those for our breakfast, which pissed him off like you wouldn't believe. But he cooled out when we put his recipe on the menu -- calling it "cheater's cassoulet" in deference to its inauthentic provenance -- and started making it by the forty-quart stock pot because we sold out so quickly and so often. We'd hold out the last order -- which is the best order, always -- so he'd have lunch waiting every night when he came in.
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