By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
The chefs, both rookies and veterans, past participants and new blood, move around the room, stopping to joke with each other and fifty guests, most of whom are experiencing their first 50top dinner. There are rules for both chefs and guests. "We ask guests to bring their own place settings, leave their cell phones behind, take pictures, put aside their crap, don't complain, have fun and, once they've left — hopefully happy, drunk and full — to spread the word about Denver restaurants," says Fader.
Chefs are asked not to don any kitchen garb. "No coats, no clogs and no chef pants are allowed," insists Fader. "All the other events we do are about us — we have to wear our chef's jackets — but when we do 50top, it's about continuing to build a food-driven community and ensuring that Denver never loses its cowtown charm. It's about throwing down, geeking out and cooking and talking about food. There really isn't a lot of separation between the chefs and the guests. It's a bit like the school dance, where the boys are on one side, the girls on the other, and eventually all the uncomfortableness melts away."
Fader thinks there needs to be more accountability — and more conversations — between chefs and the public, especially, in light of the numerous street-journalism sites where just about anyone can comment on or review a restaurant. "I want to make it very clear that I don't want to exclude anyone, but while I'm all for people broadcasting their opinions on websites like Yelp, for example, a lot of those people are completely uninformed and misguided and honestly don't know what they're talking about," Fader says. "That's one reason why it's so important to have a venue where we can chat with people and where there's one-on-one contact with the same chefs that some of these people are talking about. We want that open discourse."
But make no mistake: These dinners aren't for everyone. There's a significant degree of trust that has to go along with the clandestine magic that unfurls when a mob of badass chefs have control over your dinner. This is not a restaurant; it's not the place to be picky. So if the thought of eating pig's ears frightens you, proceed directly to the exit sign and don't pass Fader on your way out the door. If you're anti-social and the mere thought of sitting with complete strangers makes you reach for your Xanax, go back to your couch. If you routinely read health-department inspection reports and believe that a restaurant that leaves its salt and pepper shakers in the sink should be seized and burned to the ground, then you may as well dig your own grave.
It's nearly 7 p.m. by the time Fader grabs the bullhorn and shouts, "Sit your ass down!" A couple who brought an entire picnic basket filled with just about everything but their kitchen cabinets are admiring their setup. Another couple has brought pie tins as their dinner trays. One woman has busted out her grandmother's china. All the plates are soon loaded: The chefs have cooked enough food for fifty caravans of gypsies, all served family style. The menu is longer than the Declaration of Independence. There are deviled eggs, crispy pig-trotter terrine and foie gras hot dogs from Steuben's (Biederman); Szechuan spiced duck confit with fingerling potatoes from TAG (Guard); Parmesan gnocchi with lamb-shoulder ragout and Brussels sprouts with cherries, pecans, bacon and lavender yogurt from Vesta (Selby) and Venue (Rugile); crispy pig's ears drizzled with Steuben's housemade hot sauce and buttermilk-fried rabbit saddles and leg of rabbit stew from Tambien (Yontz); and the star of the show, a vat of cassoulet from Laird (Barolo Grill) that's the size of a small Winnebago. As the cart comes careening around our corner of the table, the sight of pig, pig and more pig turns into a religious epiphany for at least one person, who clasps her hands together and squeals, "Praise the lard!"
Suddenly a booming voice silences her squeal — and this time it's not Fader's. Former Denver restaurateur and mad Englishman Mel Master is in the house. Master, who left Denver for the East Coast last year after decades of commanding one of the best restaurant runs this city has ever seen, has a few words of his own for the chefs, some of whom once worked in the kitchen at Mel's Bar and Grill, the Cherry Creek restaurant that Mel and his wife, Janie, turned into a beloved classic. "These extraordinary chefs are here for no gain whatsoever," says Master. "They're sending a message that I hope we can spread through whatever means possible — even Facebook, whatever that is — a message that friendship, food and wine is what makes us happy when things are fucked up."
It's an extraordinary dinner on every level, and the chefs know it. "These dinners totally rule," says Selby, who can barely contain his enthusiasm. "They keep us all cracking jokes, and they're such a great way to say thank you to our customers, the people who support us and force us to always do better."