Chef Jun Makino's resumé may boast a connection to Jean-Louis Palladin (see review, page 65), but he's not the only hometown boy who's made good outside of the Rocky Mountain West. Denver's kitchen community is chock-full of chefs who've done time with some of the food world's serious heavy-hitters. Even so, I don't think anyone else in town could list as many Michelin stars on his curriculum vitae as Frank Bonanno.
Forget, for a moment, the two side-by-side houses he currently runs -- Mizuna and Luca d'Italia -- and all the honors that have been heaped upon them. Forget that he worked in the kitchens of both Mel's Restaurant and Bar and the late Rattlesnake Grill. Forget everything you know or have heard about Frank Bonanno, and imagine him back in his journeyman days, deep in the weeds on a busy Saturday, head down, knife in hand, the low man on the galley totem pole working the amuse station at Rick Tramonto's super-high-end Chicago restaurant, Tru.
Imagine it, because that's where Bonanno was last week, burning up a few of his incredibly rare days off by banging out orders in one of the top-rated restaurants in the country.
"To tell you the truth, I was getting a little bit burned out," he says. "I was getting tired. You know, I'm fucking here cooking every night, at both places, and it's great. I love it. I don't think the quality of what we're doing has ever been better." But still, it was time for a vacation. And while most workingmen might have fantasized about a week on some island named after a French saint, with native girls bringing umbrella drinks, what Bonanno wanted to do with his time away from work was work -- just somewhere else.
It was his wife, Jacqueline, who set things up, e-mailing Tramonto to say that they were going to be in the area and that her husband wanted to spend a little time in Tru's kitchen. "When he e-mailed back and said yes," Bonanno recalls, "I said I'd do anything. I'd work anywhere." What he got was a return to his line-cook days -- two nights working amuses, two nights working the fish station, and an inside peek at the kind of kitchen most chefs only dream about -- that had him pitching in on the unique, off-menu ten-course tastings for which Tramonto's house has become justifiably famous.
"Tru is an amazing restaurant," Bonanno says. "You could have an eight-top come in, all order the fish-tasting menu, and the only thing the servers ask is if there's any allergies, any likes or dislikes. And every person would get a different menu."
That's eighty different courses for one table. And for Bonanno, this was a vacation.
"They have an actual menu," he continues, still on a high sixteen hours after his plane landed back in Denver. "It's prix fixe only. So three courses -- appetizer, entree and dessert. But then there's two amuse bouches. One's a spoon, the other is a small plate with four amuses, and then the caviar stair that everyone gets. So it's three courses, but really six."
The caviar stair, he explains, is a spiral glass staircase set with pickled onion, egg, capers, roe and then Osetra, Sevruga, Beluga or black Iranian caviar. Everyone who eats at Tru gets one. And just the plates (if you can even call them plates) cost $200 apiece. "You think the dishwasher loses his job if he drops one?" Bonanno asks.
He needs very little prompting to describe the rest of Tru's fare: the high-concept, highly stylized foams and emulsions, the six varieties of foie gras prepared nightly. "It was fun to just see all that food, you know? The guys in the kitchen, they get away with a lot. I watched them cut three lobes a night -- one-, one-and-a-half-ounce portions all done these different ways. Here at Mizuna, we cut a three-and-a-half-, four-ounce portion for sixteen bucks, and you'd think it would be flying out the door, but it isn't," he says, looping foie through his own kitchen before returning to Tru. "One night, we had a table order an all-meat tasting, and he wanted it all well. Nothing raw. There were some giggles. But I was looking around to see, and really, no one cared. It was just food to them. They are so happy to do anything for anybody. It just didn't matter what it was. Really, it was the nicest kitchen I've ever been in. The nicest crew, the happiest, ever."
But Thomas Keller's kitchen at the French Laundry in Napa, where Bonanno spent four months after leaving Mel's, was also nice, he remembers. I've heard it referred to as a monastery for cooks, a temple of absolute, quiet dedication to the gospel according to Keller, and nothing Bonanno says contradicts that. He also talks about working pastry at the Gramercy Tavern in New York (where the crew was nice, but politically cutthroat), and then about Restaurant Daniel, also in the Big Apple, where the kitchen was full of "the meanest SOBs ever."
Bonanno has worked in Italy and France, too. He's a guy who never stops moving, never stops learning, never wants to grow complacent. He's got a cookbook in progress (with Jill Richter, who did Jax's Book of Fish ) that should be coming out in about nine months. There's no title yet, but it's going to be a national release. And that brings us to why Denver still gets so shortchanged nationally.
What it comes down to is this: It's my fault. (Well, mine and that of all the other local food writers, but I'll take the blame.) I don't work hard enough. My section isn't big enough. I don't kick enough ass. And you know what? He's right. Coming from someone like Bonanno, I'll take the criticism -- and I promise to do more, to do everything and anything I can.
For starters, I ask Bonanno what he learned on his vacation, the one big thing he brought back with him to Denver.
"I want to get back to just cooking," he replies. "I've got great crews here, but at night, there's just not a lot of room for me on the line, and sometimes, you know, I miss it. I don't know if I'm going to start doing, like, foams out the ass or anything like that, but there was a lot of refinement at Tru. And maybe refinement -- that's what I'm talking about. Just the focus on real food and the quality of it. And just cooking -- that's something you can never get enough of."
Chef and tell: Makino has Palladin on his resumé, Bonanno has Keller and Daniel Boulud, and Solera's Goose Sorenson has both Marcus Samuelson from New York's Aquavit and Alice Waters from Berkeley's Chez Panisse to thank for training (or tolerating) him through his formative years.
"And you know what that is?" Sorenson asks. You know how all the guys in town made their big-time bones? "That's all Mel."
True, our own Mel Master is a food-world celebrity of the highest order -- the kind of guy who considers chefs and foodies both famous and infamous as just folks he has over for lunch -- but he's also a tireless promoter of local talent. When Bonanno was looking to quit Mel's, Master got him his post at the French Laundry with one phone call. And Goose would have never had his time at Chez Panisse without Mel knowing Alice from way back.
But once they return to Denver, our guys have a way of making it all on their own. And Sorenson and his partner, Brian Klinginsmith, are about to add another chapter to their success story.
For the past month, they've been quietly remodeling the old Finster Brothers Bagel Bakery and Cafe on Colfax Avenue at Ivy Street, just down the street from Solera. "Because we don't have room for an office at Solera, Finster's is kinda where Brian and I used to meet every day for coffee and stuff," Sorenson says. "We got to talking with the owner, and he told us that he'd been doing it for ten years and was getting kinda burned out." Are we seeing a theme here?
"Then one day," he continues, "we go and see the tax man's notice up on the door."
Sorenson and Klinginsmith assumed ownership of the joint by paying off the tax debt, and they worked things out with the former owner so that much of the original Finster's equipment was left behind. "Really, it was just ready to go," Sorenson says. "We have this huge oven, the kind with the big wheels on the side; this one-hundred-quart mixer; some Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory-looking machine for making the bagels." And that -- along with some cleaning and painting that they did in their off hours -- was all it took for the brand-new Ivy Cafe to come to life. They've got Walter Magana (formerly of Brasserie Rouge) installed as chef and a ragtag crew of former Finster's bakers and old friends from other restaurants working the line. Their grand opening was last Friday, less than a month after they signed their names on the bottom line.
For a couple of weeks -- call it a long, soft opening -- the Ivy will be limiting itself to bagels and bagel sandwiches and some lightweight grub from the line. But soon it will be cranking out a full-service breakfast and lunch (Solera only does dinner) with sandwiches, salads, pancakes and waffles -- "the whole nine yards," according to Sorenson. And they've also got a wholesale business going, selling artisan breads and bagels out the back door.
"It's going to be a great place," Sorenson says. "And it's a great location. We've got everything Colfax. I just can't wait to see how everything works out."
Orange alert: My favorite morning, noon and midnight haunt, Breakfast King, is about to undergo remodeling. After decades of continuous service -- of 24-hour days and seven-day weeks and slow, grinding, almost geologic wear and tear -- the King's fine veneer of orange vinyl, rumpus-room paneling, grease, nicotine and honest, hard-won, historic grime has begun to go a bit thin. And while I may love the place for exactly that thinness -- for the broken-in feel of constancy that comes from seeing a history of cigarette burns and random impacts sketched into the tabletops, from walking across tracks worn in the tile by a hundred different waitresses on 10,000 slow, shuffling graveyard shifts -- the owners have decided that the time has come to clean things up.
"Everything is just worn out," says Terry Moore, one of the triumvirate currently in command of the King. "Everything is held together with duct tape, and it's just time."
I don't fear change as a general rule, but I'm an animist, and I see life in the strangest of places at the King. In the way the highway lights catch in the 3 a.m. haze of cigarette smoke, for example, turning it milky. In the highly personal geometry of the King's counter, in the arrangement of coffee cups and ashtrays, newspapers and racing forms, and never knowing who you'll end up sitting next to. In the way age and perpetual motion have given everything inside the sepia-toned feel of an old photograph, and how the memories of some nights -- the really good ones -- turn to black and white the minute you leave.
The essence of a great diner lies in how it's aged over time, how it has never let anything go. That's why a diner remodeling is a delicate process that must be undertaken with the utmost caution and concern for the intangible things which too heavy a hand might so easily destroy.
Fortunately, Moore knows exactly what he's getting into with all this talk of cleaning and prettying up a thing that's loved because of its monumental lack of conventional good looks. He understands the magic in residence at the King -- the history and indescribable color alchemy that can make orange vinyl a drinking man's favorite shade. He gets why I'm nervous about the changes, and he does his best to set my mind at ease.
"Everything is going to be exactly like it is, only new," he says, laughing as I tell him how worried I had been, how I'd freaked out a table full of writerly types by hinting that there might be changes on the way at the King, how there had been much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the possibility that the straight-up polyester roadhouse-waitress uniforms might change along with the decor.
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"I wouldn't change anything if I could," Moore continues. "I know how important it is. I would never change the orange, never change the paneling. And you don't have to worry. We would never change the uniforms, either. You know, it will have a touch of newness to it for a while, but everything will be the same."
As a matter of fact, the King has already made some stealthy changes that I didn't even notice. Some of the paneling has been replaced, the bathrooms were redone, and a lot of the accumulated knickknackery has been pulled off the walls and stowed away in anticipation of the big day when the King will actually close for renovations. According to Moore, that should be by the first of next month -- but the King will be closed for only six days while the tile is replaced and the booths and tables either refurbished or swapped for new. Moore will also be adding some actual stainless steel by the waitress station, the pass window and the bus areas.
In a show of good faith, Moore even offers to let me look at the drawings and the contractor's blueprints so that I can be sure nothing too drastic is being done to my office-away-from-the-office. But I decline, figuring that if he's telling the truth, it will be apparent as soon as the King reopens. And though I've been proven a sucker before, I feel safe putting my trust in a man who goes out of his way to assure me that the smoking area will not be shrinking by even one seat and who understands the true, intrinsic value of that much orange vinyl.
Now, if there's a way I can convince Moore to name a booth by the windows after me....