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Good Morning, America

From Aurora to Boulder and Back

So far, less than half of the $940,000 needed has been committed. So if you're feeling fiscally frisky, you can go to www.boulder-dushanbe.org/cybercafe and cough up a little for the cause. Since the United States has managed to piss off just about every other country on the planet, I think staying friends with Tajikistan is a nice idea. And there's no better way to do so than by providing the good folks of that town with a place to drink $3 mocha lattes and surf for Internet porn -- just like we do in America.

I love this place.

Prodigal son: Duy Pham was a wonder boy of Denver's pre-recession food scene who wowed 'em (and me, in particular) at Opalduring its first, best season; who was courted by big names on both coasts; who opened Flow (now Twenty) in the basement of Luna (now Jet Hotel) and rode it straight into a mach 3 nosedive; and who served me what will undoubtedly go down as one of the best meals I've had in this city -- an hours-long, $400 dozen-course digression on the breadth and depth of serious fusion cuisine and what is possible when the guy cooking it actually knows what he's doing.

But Pham has been off the radar for a while, suffering the sort of explosive lifestyle decompression that comes from being young, smart and viciously talented in an industry that sometimes seems custom-made for breaking guys like this in half. After the spectacular tanking of Flow, he did some time in Meeker, cooking for the resort crowd and trying to get his head together. He returned briefly (and almost silently) to Opal, then bailed again after owner Jay Chadrom brought in Jose Guerrero to run the kitchen (and subsequently, the kitchen at Aqua across the street). He took a turn through the galley at Sushi Den -- which, for a lot of restaurant guys, is kind of like checking into culinary rehab or a monastery, where the work and the product take absolute precedence over any individual name in the kitchen. And then Pham left town altogether.

"I was in Naples," he told me after calling out of the blue last week. "Naples, Florida. Not the other one."

To be exact, he was at Zoe's, a Naples institution that gets some serious national attention for a place that exists mainly to feed tourists. Duy was behind the grill at Zoe's for almost a year, writing menus and cooking for a highly transitory crowd, trying to find a balance between the complicated, super-intellectual food he's best at and the down-home simplicity of the comfort-food addiction that Florida has never managed to shake.

"It was extremely high-end," Pham explained. "And maybe it was over some people's heads. But Florida is weird, you know? I mean, I could do meatloaf -- and not to say meatloaf isn't complicated; it can be. But I put meatloaf on the menu, and they love it. It was our meatloaf. We made everything ourselves, from scratch, and it was good. They'd eat it all day."

Pham thought he had a pretty good deal at Zoe's. The owners got him an apartment there and flew him back to Denver once a month to see his family and snoop around the edges of the scene. So when the time came for him to pack his knife roll and come home (a move inspired by the fact that he was unable to sell his house here), he wasn't totally out of the loop.

And now he's buying a restaurant -- actually, half of one: Kyotoin the Aspen Grove Center at 7301 South Santa Fe Drive in Littleton. Pham's in the process of buying the 50 percent share of one of the owners who wants out of the industry, which will make him an equal partner with James Lee, who's staying. Pham's in the kitchen right now, cooking through the transition and anticipating that the deal will be completed within the month -- at which point Kyoto will close briefly and reopen as...Kyoto. And when it does, it will be the first place where Pham has had an ownership stake -- his first restaurant, really, though he's been cooking since forever.

"My partner wanted to keep the name and the basic concept the same," Pham told me. "But we wanted to be able to have a grand opening and everything. A fresh start. Really do it right." He's already picked up Lieu Chi D(formerly the assistant manager at Sushi Sasa) as his GM, and has Andy Ly --"one of the best Chinese chefs in town," according to Pham -- as his right-hand man. Ly will handle the Asian half of the fusion equation, while Pham, a classically French-trained chef, handles the European side. "I'm not very strong on Asian cuisines," he said, repeating what he's said more times than is probably comfortable for someone with his name and skin color. "But I'm learning. This is not my show. It's not just me. I know I need to surround myself with a good crew, the best guys I can find."

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