A year ago, when foodies around town were all talking about Radek Cerny and the sudden closing of Papillon Cafe (its former home at 250 Josephine Street is now occupied by Indigo) and Radex (now Opal, at 100 East Ninth Avenue), I took a ride out to Niwot to review Cerny's remaining restaurant, Le Chantecler (210 Franklin Street), a country French outpost on the plains that was three years old at the time. In that piece ("Chef and Tell," August 15, 2002), I had this to say: "With its comfortable dining rooms, polished silver, sparkling glassware and casual, rustic charm, Le Chantecler is a beautiful place to eat, but the tragedy is that right now, there aren't any beautiful meals being served there. I won't presume to guess at what might be going on in Le Chantecler's galley or in the lives of those working there (Dale Lamb, with whom Cerny worked at European Cafe, is the current chef de cuisine), and I won't grumble over what might really be behind Radek Cerny's recent moves. But I do know for sure that what's going on here can only be cured by a reinvestment of devotion to the little things, those trivialities and small touches that make all the difference in the world."
I didn't know it, but apparently there were lots of things going on in Le Chantecler's kitchen at the time, and none of them were good. By his own admission, Cerny was burned out. He and Lamb weren't getting along. There were troubles with management. The crew was a mess. And all of this was showing in the food.
"We were going through a lot of changes then," Lamb says. "Things were not good. Everyone was kind of walking on eggshells." But over the past year, the situation has changed for the better. Cerny has since sold Le Chantecler to his former manager, Elizabeth Darling, who then sold partnerships to Lamb (now executive chef) and former customer Mike Antinson. A new sous chef, Jeff Cruse, was brought on board and a fresh crew hired.
When I dropped by Le Chantecler for dinner last week, I found a restaurant that looked exactly as I remembered but had a new sense of energy running through it. Le Chantecler was packing a surprising amount of tables for a weeknight, and all of the people sitting at them seemed happy and relaxed, tended to by a well-educated floor staff who had obviously been run through several rounds of tastings. They had answers for every question about the freshly updated menu (and the right answers, for the most part, which is rare) and suggestions for dishes to try that were perhaps a bit enthusiastic, but not by much.
"The braised pork roast? Oh that's excellent," fawned my waiter. "And that comes with the lumache pasta with Spanish mahón cheese. That's a hard cheese, very mild, and it makes the best macaroni and cheese you've ever had."
He was breathless with enthusiasm, his eyes twinkling with slightly manic ardor, but you know what? The kid was right. The dish came with six medallions of fatty, tender pork roast, cooked perfectly and swimming in an inspired ham-hock jus -- the slight, easy sweetness of it an ideal counterpoint to the heavier flavor of the roast. But the undisputed star of the plate -- just as he'd said -- was the best macaroni and cheese I'd ever had. Now, cheese sauce is a pretty lowbrow thing. You put it on nachos. You squirt it on crackers. And it's not often that you see a cheese sauce being touted on the menu of a French restaurant (even if the French restaurant in question is really more Continental Italian than anything else), and it's even less often that such a stunt works. But this thick cheese sauce made from the aged, slightly smoky Menorcan cow's milk worked beautifully with the lumache (a large-shell pasta, its name Italian for "snails"), and the result was a gooey, full-bodied and totally high-end version of the stuff in the blue box that my mom used to make when I was a kid, sitting on the couch watching old He-Man cartoons. It was bliss. About a zillion calories' worth of bliss.
A year ago, the prosciutto-wrapped shrimp had been a total disaster. They were much better this time, with the tightly wrapped prosciutto cut thinner, cooked less, handled more gently, but pointlessly dotted with black and white sesame seeds. Inside their salty ham armor, the shrimp were perfect -- tender, sweet and meaty -- and, once all the sesame seeds were scraped off, nicely jacked up by the side of sweet-hot chile-orange-horseradish-mustard sauce. In another revisitation of things past, I'd ordered the beef tournedoes, which arrived with one thick round in a tarn of grilled shiitake mushroom, veal and wine glacé, the other dressed in a Hennessy cream and speckled with green peppercorns. A year ago, this was a weak, timid plate making a grasp toward richness; today it's finally found a fingerhold. It still wasn't great, but it was vastly improved.
In fact, the only sour note came with a cup of watermelon gazpacho that tasted like an experiment in botanical cross-breeding gone horribly wrong, like a weirdly chunky mélange of tomato, cucumber, pepper, chile, onion, lemon and cilantro with several watermelon-flavored Jolly Rancher candies left to dissolve in the mix. It was nasty: sweet like kissing a bottle of schnapps, sour like the taste of your mouth the morning after. And I like gazpacho. Imagine what I would have thought if I didn't.
Wrapping up: I want to kick Rocco DiSpirito -- that precious little snowflake at the center of NBC's just-wrapped-for-the-season reality series The Restaurant -- in the nuts. Not because of jealousy -- not because he has a TV show and I don't, or because he has a nice, fat endorsement deal and I don't. And not because he's a pretty-boy celebrity more concerned with keeping that gleaming white chef's coat clean than with actually cooking (okay, it's partly that, but not entirely). And not because I begrudge him his success.
It's because he let down the team. He made the rest of us -- all the chefs and ex-chefs out there, all the mad, bad, knife-wielding pros doing the job without a camera crew on them like white on rice -- look like a buncha punks, dolts and fuck-ups. He sold his soul to the devil (or at least to veteran restaurant money-man Jeffrey Chodorow), peddled his ass to NBC, and in the process convinced about eight million prime-time viewers that when your kitchen is in the weeds, when the food is all cold, when your guys are on the verge of bloody, out-and-out mutiny, what a "real" chef does is pull himself a cold pint of Coors Light and tongue-kiss Fran Drescher.
I know, I know. Not long ago I made The Restaurant required viewing for all the Bite Me faithful ("...And twins!" July 24). Back then, I honestly felt there were moments when the cameras captured things like they really are in the bowels of a high-pressure, high-volume, entirely mid-range working restaurant kitchen, and I hoped the natural drama of life in the business would be allowed to work itself out. Sex in the walk-in, fights on the line, that spinning, hammering, imperturbable rush in the chest that a line cook can get when he's been buried in tickets for several hours straight and has put out every plate, every order, perfectly; the fine spray of blood you get when some third-year culinary-school intern accidentally takes off about two inches of finger while prepping the mirepoix -- now, that's good TV. But watching Rocco zip around on his hot-pink Vespa while his kitchen burns? Not so much. Hours of catty bartenders and sniveling waitstaff sniping and backbiting and complaining endlessly about their existential angst over the new ordering system? No, thanks. If I were that hard up for entertainment, I'd get myself a night job as a waiter at Buca di Beppo.
Now, in just six hours of prime time, The Restaurant has defined for the insatiable masses -- the majority of whom have never seen the inside of a working kitchen that's any more stressed than the stage where Emeril tapes his Food Network show -- just what it's like to work in the industry. It's shown that everyone is pretty, everyone is shallow, nothing is ever hard for very long, and the solution to all personnel problems is pulling out the Amex card and taking everyone to a clambake in the Hamptons. Sure, there were some true moments: the long pan past the sweat-soaked line cook consumed with rage as the front-of-house staff capers for the camera; the sudden look of serene calm that overcame Rocco (who actually can cook, by the way) when he finally deigned to pick up a pan and a knife and actually work in his own kitchen; the seemingly endless series of staff meetings and stop-gap solutions for keeping employees who were fleeing like rats from a sinking ship; the sequence where the new grill man was given his shot at the station and failed miserably. But on the whole, Rocco's version of reality (or, perhaps more appropriately, producers Mark Burnett's and Ben Silverman's version) ended up portraying this world -- which was my world for more than a decade -- about as accurately as The Flintstones did the daily lives of cavemen.
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Real chefs work, Rocco. That's the bottom line.
Leftovers: But hey, maybe that six-hour reality-TV education really got you pumped for a job in food service. If so, Culinary School of the Rockies is offering a new program called "The Business of Cooking." This five-session, workshop-style class is designed to provide entrepreneurs and restaurant rookies alike a bit of instruction and practical coaching in the business of running a successful restaurant. Participants will be led, step by step, through the process of opening and maintaining a culinary concern in Colorado, including education on city, county and state taxes, licensing, code approvals, health-department regulations and what to do when the busboy shows up drunk or the grill catches fire on opening night. For more info, check out www.cookingschoolrockies.com.
School not for you? Well, the best way to learn is by doing -- and the Colorado Restaurant Association is holding a job fair from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on September 10 at the Tivoli Student Union on the Auraria campus.
Employers will be taking applications and resumés, and some will be hiring on the spot. But if you're going there looking for the Food Network talent scouts, forget it. Celebrities need not apply.