"Cooking is like love," wrote Harriet van Horne. "It should be entered into with abandon, or not at all."
'Tis the season that most cooks dream about and restaurant owners dread. With Christmas, New Year's and now Valentine's Day passed, we're on that long, slow slide toward spring, when people cocoon indoors, waiting out the cold. In the dining world, this is the dead zone. No major holidays (excepting Mother's Day, which can be serious business at some places), no big weekends.
When you're a restaurant owner, late February is the time you start to panic, praying that your regulars will keep you afloat until the tourists, foot traffic and what-have-you start coming back. But for chefs, late February is like summer vacation. The stress levels are cranked down a notch. Doing a hundred plates feels absolutely leisurely after that desperate holiday scrambling to feed two, maybe three hundred covers. The heat of the line is still mitigated by the chilly temperatures outside, and stepping out of the cold at 5 a.m. into the heavy, wet heat of a kitchen full of bakers just finishing their day's work feels wonderful. That smell -- that stink of yeast and flour, burbling sourdough starters quivering in the proofing box, bleach and old sneakers -- that you've hated, dreaded, walking into each morning now smells like home.
From February until early April, the cooks who love cooking are really at their best. They have time to fuss over ingredients, experiment with new dishes, take chances they can't afford when the house is full and there's no room for mistakes. They have time to play.
"No one who cooks, cooks alone," wrote Laurie Colwin. "Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers."
I've been poking around the cooking schools lately, looking for places where, in this quietest of seasons, both professionals and rank amateurs might go for a little reminder of why we love the kitchen so. Proving my theory about the slow months, the Seasoned Chef Cooking School (999 Jasmine Street, suite 100) is dragging six chefs away from their kitchens for one night each to teach demonstration classes. Frank Bonanno from Mizuna (225 East Seventh Avenue) and now Luca d'Italia (711 Grant Street) will be on the floor March 3, from 6:30 to 9 p.m., showcasing rustic Italian cuisine, including sweet ricotta gnocchi and amaretto cookies with balsamic dolci. Steve Rohs of the Painted Bench (400 East 20th Street) will be there on March 6, doing country French with a distinctive Brit slant; he's followed by Sheila Lucero from Jax (1539 17th Street) on March 11, top dog Bryan Moscatello from Adega (1700 Wynkoop Street) on March 17, and Sam Arnold from The Fort (19192 Highway 8, Morrison), along with chef de cuisine David Woolley, doing an American menu with flavors of the Southwest on March 27.
The Seasoned Chef also offers hands-on classes, where you can sharpen your knife skills, learn the specialized alchemy of high-altitude baking or take a guided tour of a Latin grocery. On March 22, Gigia Kolouch will lead students around the Avanza Supermarket at 44th Avenue and Harlan, explaining in detail just what you're supposed to do with that nopalito, chayote and tomatillo; the tour will be followed by cooking demonstrations back at the school. For more information on any classes, visit www.theseasonedchef.com.
Colorado Free University (with offices at 1510 York Street and details at www.freeu.com) has something similar, with an ethnic grocery and bakery tour that will take students on a whirlwind romp through a dozen local spots featuring Italian, German, Vietnamese, Thai, French, Middle Eastern, Indian and Mexican foods under the expert guidance of Dianna Ohlsson, a teacher with ten years of ethnic-cuisine expertise already behind her. The class costs $49 (not counting what you may spend on nuoc mam, schnitzel, beignette, daal and chorizo) and hits the road on Saturday, March 29.
At Pour (100 Superior Plaza Way, Superior), you can learn about your grapes from the pros. February 26 is Pour's pinot noir tasting, with a comparison of varietals from France to California; on March 5, merlot takes center stage. Each class runs $30 in advance ($35 at the door) and includes light appetizers and expert instruction from Chris Rowe, staff educator at Southern Wine and Spirits.
As if his catering business, his weekly supper club and a recent appearance at the Sundance Film Festival weren't enough to keep him busy, James Mazzio is now holding cooking classes at Chef Jam (1200 Miramonte Street, Broomfield). He's structuring the classes as a series of four, held each Sunday for a month, and covering technique, knife skills and preparation. Although you can take individual classes, this is hands-on instruction from an award-winning chef: Why wouldn't you want to take advantage of every minute being offered? Besides, the fourth class in the series focuses on how to create an entire party, with friends and family invited to attend graduation-day festivities. (Sample menus include herb-stuffed oven roasted chicken with white truffle polenta, Belgian chocolate soufflé, vegetable stew with baked goat cheese, or -- I'd imagine -- whatever strikes Mazzio's fancy that month.) Visit www.chefjam.com or call 303-404-2525 for more details.
Interested in a career as a chef? Cooking School of the Rockies (637 South Broadway, Boulder) has a professional chef-track program guaranteed to turn a boy into a man in just 24 weeks. Taught by a dozen or so local professionals -- and including a paid externship that will actually put you right in the belly of the beast -- this is a good way to see for yourself if you have what it takes. If you already have a few years on the line under your belt, though, Cooking School of the Rockies is also offering 150 hours of intensive training in pastry arts that covers all the basics of the other side of the kitchen -- the part that most line cooks never even see.
Cooking School of the Rockies has single classes, too, whether you're looking for elemental instruction or just trying to bulk up your repertoire. Basic cooking classes are offered frequently, interspersed with more focused topics like savory pastries, chocolate and advanced technique classes that'll have you flutin', rackin' and schiffonadin' like a born natural. And for the ultimate kick (and $3,300), you can tag along with Andy Floyd, the school's academic director, for a month in Provence. Learn everything you've ever wanted to know about French wine, food and artisan producers while eating your way through three meals a day in the country where haute cuisine was born. I don't know for a fact if something like this is necessary in the development of a good cook, but I've always felt that for a chef, a trip to France is what a pilgrimage to Mecca is for a Muslim: a return to the source, and proof of your dedication to the One True Faith.
Cook Street School of Fine Cooking (1937 Market Street) has another option: a European culinary tour that starts with eight days in La Cadiere d'Azur, where you'll shop the markets, visit the farms and spend your afternoons cooking in the kitchen of Hostellerie Berard under the guidance of chef Rene Berard. Following that, it's a quick trip south to Asti, Italy, for fourteen days of immersive study at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners. Classes are in Italian, interpreters are provided, and the price tag's a modest $5,900.
Cook Street also offers crash courses here at home, one-month intensives that teach a little bit of everything (including either bread-making or pastry) and let you work alongside students on the professional track. There are also individual courses in classic technique, breads, baking, knife work, you name it, as well as kids' classes. And every Friday, dabblers can dip into Rush Hour Wines ($49) from 5:30-7:30 p.m., complete with wine tastings, hors d'oeuvres and conversation. For all the facts, visit www.cookstreet.com or call 303-308-9300.
Leftovers: Once upon a time, the most upscale restaurant in the area north of Sixth Avenue and just east of Broadway was Chef Henri (301 East Seventh Avenue). Today that spot is occupied by Benny's Restaurante & Cantina, which packs the crowds in every night (and day) of the week. Benny's original home, at 225 East Seventh Avenue, now holds Mizuna -- whose owners, Bonanno and Doug Fleischmann, have survived test dinners, made it through a soft opening this past Saturday night, and are now digging in for the onslaught of regular diners at their new place, Luca d'Italia, around the corner at 711 Grant Street, in what had been China Hill.
The space looks great, by the way, but what about the menu? Here's a peek: housemade mozzarella with Tuscan olive oil, fresh basil and roasted peppers; a warm polenta terrine studded with sweet sausage and sheep's cheese; duck-liver ravioli; white bean and basil agnolloti in a tomato broth, with Reggiano Parmesan; whole-roasted striped bass with braised fennel and a citrus vinaigrette; a New York classic pizzaola strip steak with peppers, onions and sausage; chicken three ways; veal three ways; rabbit three ways.... The list goes on and on.
Of course, just a block down the street, at 410 East Seventh Avenue, is the four-month-old Vega, in the space that once held Sacre Bleu (and JV's the Cork, and Transalpin before that).
And you thought LoDo had parking problems!
The neighborhood's only going to get more crowded, too. Racines, located at 850 Bannock Street for two decades (which means it was there long before anyone called the area the Golden Triangle), finally had the plug pulled on its lease by landlord Bruce Berger, who's selling the property (and the entire block that surrounds it) to Hanover Development out of Houston, so that Hanover can build some fancy-shmancy apartments -- a real smart move in this economy. The Racines group (which also owns Dixons and Goodfriends) always knew that this day might come, and so had been scouting nearby neighborhoods for some time. It's settled on a property at 660 Sherman Street, but there's a problem: The group will be breaking ground on the new space at the beginning of April but doesn't expect to be finished until the end of November, according to Lee Goodfriend, part of the ownership triumvirate that includes Dixon Staples and David Racine. And they have to clear out of the old Racines by June 10.
"We're trying to get an extension from the people who will own the property," says spokesman John Imbergamo, who gives that a 50 percent chance. "It doesn't look good," Goodfriend says simply. "We don't want to lay off our wonderful staff of a hundred employees. We have lots of people who've worked for us for ten or fifteen years. That's our biggest concern."
In the meantime, Racines is moving full speed ahead with plans to tear down the two buildings now located in the 600 block of Sherman and replace them with one brand-spankin'-new one. Goodfriend says the group thought of trying to resurrect the look of the current Racines, which is housed in an old auto dealership, but "it turned out better for us to do a 9,500-square-foot brick building" with an interior that will be "updated Racines."
At least Racines won't be adding to the neighborhood parking problem: The project includes a parking structure with 81 spaces, 27 more than the restaurant has now. And Racines is planning ahead on another hot issue: According to Imbergamo, the space is "being designed with the possibility of smoking."
Right now, though, most of the smoke is coming from pissed-off customers angry that they might lose their local hang for even a few months. Regulars have even considered petitioning the new owners to let Racines stay around a few more months.
They can sign us up.
One more note from Racines' soon-to-be neighborhood: The Lancer Lounge (233 East Seventh Avenue) still makes a mean Bloody Mary but sadly has lost the cook that won this classic saloon the "Best Unexpected Food in a Dive" award in the 2002 Best of Denver.
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A bite of the Big Apple: And speaking of the Best of Denver, what's up with the Morton's of Chicago in midtown Manhattan prominently displaying the cover of the Best of Denver 1988 in its entryway? (There's another copy down by the bathrooms, just in case you missed the first display.)
Yes, Morton's won best steakhouse that year for its then-sole Denver location, located in the Tivoli. But if the midtown-Manhattan outlet needs to tout a fifteen-year-old Denver award, it's got bigger problems than orange alerts.
For your chance to sound off on this year's Best of Denver Readers' Poll, see page 58.