By Chris Utterback
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Jesus...," I said to no one in particular, dopey smile aimed down 17th Avenue, waddling a little as I cleared the doors of Olivea. "He is just so fucking good."
"So you liked dinner?" Laura asked, squeezing my hand.
John Broening has had a dodgy run. Good times and bad, not always in equal measure. He also has a resumé that I envy the way the moon must the sun, and a dedicated talent so far beyond my own that were I to take up cooking again today and, like a monk to silence, devote myself completely to the kitchen, I would be a hundred before I got to where Broening is likely to be next year. Some of that is training, but most of it is Broening himself.
The son of an AP foreign correspondent, Broening grew up scattered across continents — in France, in Moscow, in Portugal and NYC. He enrolled in college like a normal person (degree in English Lit, Haverford College), then went wrong somewhere in the '80s (just like so many of us...) and found his way into kitchens late, at the age of 25. He worked at China Grill and Metro under Patrick Clark, moved to San Francisco and put six more restaurants behind him in a year or so, then bounced across the ocean again for Paris, where he become a poissonier under Guy Savoy.
Yeah, that Guy Savoy.
Broening came to Colorado in '99, running the kitchen at Primitivo in Colorado Springs before heading north. When no one in Denver really knew his name, he was appointed exec chef at Brasserie Rouge — which, for a brief moment and almost wholly because of Broening, the devoted craftsman chef, was the best restaurant in the city. Right up until it suddenly became one of the city's most high-profile disasters, not at all because of him. Even as that particular ship was sinking, Broening was turning out gorgeous French charcuterie, straight-up farmhouse and brasserie cuisine of a refinement and rustic confidence that hadn't been seen anywhere in Denver. I think he probably bailed out of this particular Titanic with a coq au vin still simmering on the stove.
After Rouge, Broening did time at Udi's, where he met his future wife, Yasmin Lozada-Hissom. It was Lozada-Hissom who put his name in front of Keith Arnold and Stephanie Bonin back in 2005, when that couple was in the process of opening Duo in the then-not-nearly-so-hot Highland neighborhood. Arnold and Bonin ended up hiring both of them: Broening the consummate craftsman wearing the big hat on the hot line, Lozada-Hissom in the cool and calm of the pastry department.
From the start, Duo was a fantastic little neighborhood place, doing incredibly smart American cuisine with a depth of technique like a thousand-foot well. Brasserie Rouge had been an unapologetically French restaurant and, as with any good chef, French cooking was Broening's first passion. It was where he was grounded, the base upon which everything else was built. At Duo, he rigorously applied that French technique to a farm-to-table menu that was American to its bones, full of fried chicken and grits, Colorado lamb and Hoppin' John. Years after my first meal there, I still recall a side of hash browns he made — the best I've ever eaten.
Still, all of this was before Olivea, before my most recent run-in with Broening's cuisine. With Duo running smoothly, this year Arnold and Bonin snapped up the 17th Avenue space that had been occupied by Aix — and invited Broening and Lozada-Hissom to join them as partners. Olivea, which opened in May, claims to be an Italian, Southern French and Spanish restaurant all in one, but that's a small lie of convenience. The fact that Duo has a rémoulade on its board doesn't make it French. And even though Olivea serves a duck-liver mousse and a plate of gnocchi, it's really a Spanish restaurant that happens to offer a few international departures — like colorful stamps on a well-traveled passport.
I first visited Olivea on a Saturday night, watching as strangers at the bar made their own small parties — groups of three or four forming, splitting, then re-forming in a kind of Brownian dance. They shared food. They told stories. Everyone, it seemed, had one drink more than was probably prudent. The floor surged and cooled, flooded and drained. The waitstaff moved through the tide like sea birds accustomed to the drag of crashing waves, and when they traveled between the main room and the patio, they always seemed to come back flushed.
Sitting at the bar — at the far end, back by the wall — I couldn't see into the kitchen, so I didn't know if Broening was even in attendance. He brought on a hand-picked crew to back him up at Olivea and bounces between the two restaurants, each located in what have become two of the city's hottest restaurant neighborhoods. But in the end, his actual physical presence didn't much matter. I ate fried chickpeas, served in a paper cone like something from a county fair in a county I very badly want to live in, with a side of pink harissa aioli that burned my tongue the way the chickpeas burned my fingertips. I drank Spanish lager from a beer list that has no Corona, no PBR, nothing childish or retro, and watched my flatbread come from the kitchen's pass window. It was small, served on a wooden board, topped with delicate curls of prosciutto, green olive tapenade and manchego. For just a minute, I could not think of anything else in the world I'd rather be eating.