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Bite Me

y the time you read this, Duy Pham will have left Flow, the downstairs restaurant at the four-month-old Luna Hotel (1612 Wazee Street). The twenty-something chef cooked one of the top five meals of my life when he was at Opal (100 East Ninth Avenue), then left to take over the kitchen at Flow before the ink was even dry on the Best of Denver 2003, in which Opal won top honors as Best New Restaurant -- and all because of Pham's cooking.

After weeks of rumors, Pham gave his notice to the hotel's owners last week. And now he's looking for a new place to call home.

Pham's departure wasn't the only shakeup that the hipper-than-thou Luna has experienced -- just the most recent and most critical. Last month the place lost both general manager Brian Shorter (who bailed leaving no forwarding address, just a mention that he was off to pursue other opportunities) and champion barman Oran Feild, who took his alcoholic alchemy to the longbar at Brasserie Rouge (1801 Wynkoop Street). And word on the street is that employees of all descriptions are still jumping ship like crazy, as though the owner had changed Luna's name to the Titanic and steered it toward heavy seas.

Just last week, for example, replacement GM Scott Tallman (formerly of Panzano, the restaurant in the Hotel Monaco, 1717 Champa Street) went overboard. And there will be lots more news to come -- especially after Flow lurches through its first weekend with no staff in the kitchen.

Pete's, re-Petes and PETA: If, like me, you sometimes find yourself wandering the city's grayer quarters at odd hours of the night and recently spotted the warm glow of neon and incandescent lights spilling out of Pete's Kitchen (1962 East Colfax Avenue) around three in the morning on a weekday, you weren't hallucinating. Everyone's favorite late-night breakfast spot recently made the jump from being a weekend-only all-night destination to a 24/7 outpost for Denver's nightcrawlers, vampires and insomniacs. Which means I can now get a fix of avgolemono (Greek lemon, chicken and rice soup) and homemade cherry pie whenever I want it -- and that makes me a happy little restaurant cricket.

What is it they say? That God never closes a door without opening a window? Well, that rule apparently applies to college bars, too, because while the student union on the Auraria Campus lost the Boiler Room a few weeks ago, Johnson & Wales University just opened Pete's Pub. Named for Pete Coors (yeah, the guy with the beer), this new college bar hosted an invite-only grand opening last Thursday, with Coors himself pulling the first pint from the new taps. According to Lindsay Morgan, J&W's spokeswoman, it took a long time to get Coors's name on the door. "Peter Coors has given so much time and service to the university," she says, "but he's kinda shy. He says getting your name on things isn't the point of philanthropy. We pitched him for four years just to get him to agree to have anything named after him."

If only the Coors Twins were so humble...

In the July 24 Bite Me, I talked about how People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had filed suit against KFC Corp. , claiming that KFC misrepresented itself and its treatment of chickens bound for your bucket of extra-crispy. PETA's lawsuit charged that KFC was making "significant misrepresentations and outright false statements that conceal from the public the horrific suffering endured by chickens raised and killed for KFC." The suit, as well as a months-long boycott of the chain and its parent company, Yum! Brands, was supposed to make the business improve the way its chickens were kept, raised and slaughtered, PETA reps explained.

Well, the lawsuit has been dropped -- but not because KFC has changed the way it treats its chickens. (Actually, the company insists that it was never doing anything wrong and says that the information on which PETA had based its claims was outdated to begin with.) Instead, KFC agreed to stop making allegedly "false statements" and to refrain from instructing customer-service representatives to tell callers that PETA's charges about the company's chicken-processing methods were untrue. KFC also removed information from its Web site claiming that its chickens suffered no pain or injury; that suppliers were prohibited from giving chickens growth-promoting drugs; and that it has adhered to a strict animal-welfare policy for the past decade.

Ahh, progress...

When the Alec Baldwin-narrated Meet Your Meat, a DVD from PETA, arrived in my mailbox the other day, it looked like money in the bank -- an easy couple of column inches poking fun at the Hollywood star and lefty mouthpiece, then closing with a brief screed on how much I hate it when celebrities try to tell me how to live my life. Of course, being a good little journalist, I figured I'd better actually watch the thing first. You know, just in case Alec actually had something to say.

 

What followed was probably the most uncomfortable thirteen minutes of my life. Worse than getting my first look at hard-core porn at far too young an age. Worse than when one of my psychopathic friends talked me into watching one of those Faces of Death videos. Worse than an all-night marathon of Suzanne Somers Thighmaster infomercials. It was everything you might expect from a PETA-produced effort -- full of jerky, poorly lit footage of people doing the most horrible shit to animals that you can imagine. Yeah, it was biased. It worked hard to make viewers believe that every cow bound for our tables is a tortured, broken-leg cripple covered with pus-filled tumors; that every pig meets its end screaming and still half-alive in the boiling water of the hair-removal vats; and that the only mercy a veal calf ever gets is one behind the ear from the barrel of a pneumatic bolt gun.

But it wasn't the bias that bothered me. Or the lies of omission and the exaggeration. All of that I expected. What sickened me was that much of it was true. Every horror PETA showed was an actual one -- rare (at least I hope to God as rare as I think it is), but real. This is the price we pay for having 99-cents-a-pound ground chuck in the grocery store; for a plentiful supply of cheap milk, cheap eggs, fat steaks and nice, gleaming piles of hormone-loaded chicken breasts.

And even though this was a piece made explicitly to shock and disgust meat-eaters like me -- using only worst-case examples to shame us into thinking twice about picking up that warm, greasy bag of double cheeseburgers on the way home -- I can't entirely fault the PETA folks for their fervor. They may have chosen only the worst, only the most graphic and most disgusting images they could find, but there's truth in them. Ugly and vile as the film is, I think everyone should see it. I think third-graders should be made to watch it before lunch. I think it should be run on a continuous-loop tape for auditoriums full of people with their eyelids peeled back, Clockwork Orange style, just to remind us how far removed we've become from the chain of breeding and killing that puts food on our tables every night.

There was a time not too long ago when I worked in a kitchen where we killed our own rabbits for selle de lapin and other specials. This was only an occasional thing (and probably against about a million health codes), but there are two things about it I'll never forget. One was the feeling of the neck snapping in my hands -- sharp and crisp like breaking a stalk of celery. Two was how totally goddamn serious it got on the line whenever we were cooking one of the bunnies we'd killed. You have a very different sense of connection and responsibility when Peter Cottontail's blood is on your hands. Not the hands of the butcher or the breeder or some factory farmer somewhere a hundred miles away, but yours. You want -- no, you need -- to make something fantastic out of that rabbit because you killed him yourself, and if you fuck up the dish, if you burn it, ignore it or give it less than your absolute and undivided attention, then you have wasted that animal's life.

Meet Your Meat reminded me with all the subtlety of a kick in the stomach just how important it is to know where our food is coming from. But I would be an intolerable hypocrite if I simply waved my finger at the beef or poultry industry who put it there for us, because I've been part and parcel of the problem for most of my adult life. I've been complicit in the slaughter of hundreds of cows, maybe thousands. Every time I called up my meat guy and told him I needed some tenderloin, fifty pounds of onglet and two cases of burgers, I was telling him to go and assassinate me an animal. Brunch was a chicken genocide -- eighty dozen eggs a day at one place. More breasts, legs and thighs than I can count. I was the chicken Hitler. And I've personally sent countless lobsters and innumerable mussels to their deaths. I killed them by the fistful, throwing them alive into scalding pans or pots of boiling water.

I am as much a murderer as any of the sadists captured in that DVD. All carnivores are. And as much as I'd like to think there was something different about the way I committed my murders -- that by working the cook's magic of alchemy and transubstantiation, what I did was somehow finer than what was done by the men with their long knives and hip-waders -- there's not.

 

These days, most of us are only consumers. All we see is the final product, the sterile thing wrapped in plastic in the back of the freezer or the lovely, finished crown roast in the center of the table. But cries of "But meat is yummy!" ring false when drowned out by the thumping machinery of the factory farm. Other than giving in, giving up, throwing up your hands and going veggie, the only thing anyone can do -- the thing that I will do -- is make sure you think before you eat. Make your meals count. Don't waste them. Don't disrespect what died for you by eating crap, and don't make the sacrifice vain by wasting anything you're given. We live in a place and time of wonderful, almost unbelievable abundance, but it has come at a cost. We are ten steps removed from the food chain. We rarely have to see the cost of our demands for having everything bigger, better, cheaper and faster. And while we may moralize the difference between the horrors of the worst of the meat-processing industry and the equally deceptive myth of free-range, cruelty-free ranching, in the end it doesn't matter how gently or how rude and brutally death comes. It's all killing, and none of it is humane.

So eat well and live well, and remember the true cost of what you eat. We're all executioners when dinnertime comes.

Oh, yeah, and Baldwin? He got off easy this time. But he still can't have my meat.

Leftovers: Life in the restaurant world offers a lot of benefits -- good food; an outlet for creative talent; cheap and easy access to liquor, drugs and women of loose virtue; an excuse to play with knives and fire all day. But what it doesn't offer is much in the way of job security. To wit: Aquarela (3000 East Third Avenue) has gone dark. The French-Brazilian restaurant got off to a rocky start with prices too high for the depressed Denver market and dishes that weren't always up to par, but when I made it there for a review ("Ex Marks the Spot," June 12), I thought things were on the verge of turning around. Apparently I was wrong. No word on the whereabouts of Brazilian chef Jennival Santos, but if anyone out there is on the make for a Franco-Braz executive chef for a new concept restaurant, I think I know one who's looking for work.

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Caffe Luna

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