Let me tell you something about chefs that doesn't get a lot of play on the Food Network: They're survivors. In their climb up the ladder from wherever they began to wherever they top out, they've probably stepped on a lot of necks, taken on a certain mercenary mindset and, in some cases, been forced to learn skills that would have made Machiavelli blush. Chefs in their element -- which is to say in the kitchen, in command of a brigade and all that entails -- have to understand the nuts and bolts of commerce, the psychology of supply and demand; they must be crack negotiators (honing their skills on everything from the produce order to scheduling dishwashers) and good teachers, have an obsessive/compulsive streak about organization, and possess the tough-love leadership qualities of Patton as played by George C. Scott. It's not an easy job, and most of the chefs who can list ten years in The Life on their resumés are not so much artists and bosses and businesspeople as they are forces of nature.
What they aren't is cute. They're not cuddly catchphrase-spouting Wookies in white jackets and thousand-dollar haircuts, or pretty-boy model wannabes puttering around on Vespas and cooking apricot chicken for their mates on a Friday night.
They're pros, like Jennifer Jasinski. She's tough and talented and good at her job, and if her first restaurant (see review, page 54) is stumbling a bit right now? So what? Second films are tough on sophomore directors. Second novels kill writers. And second menus are a serious bitch. Since you give it your whole heart the first time, what are you going to do for a followup?
As a critic, I may have problems with Jasinski's new menu -- but as a trend-watcher, it gives me comfort. A true chef has a no-pun-intended gut-level understanding of economics and market forces that most Wall Street traders would kill for. Every night, a chef watches people eat -- and because eating is 90 percent psychology and 10 percent keen advertising, that chef can see long before anyone else where tastes are going. And Rioja is now perfectly positioned to jump in whatever direction tastes point. Pizza, pasta, small plates, big plates, cheese plates, meat plates, an adaptable wine list, quick-turn seating and plenty of carefully price-pointed apps for the twitchy Larimer Square foot traffic.
Over the past fifteen years, we've seen comfort food come and go; a resurgence in fine dining followed by an almost inevitable retreat predicated by a lingering recession. Coming down from their white-tablecloth high, smart chefs moved first in the direction of the French bistro/brasserie model, and then -- when it seemed as though major food cities were becoming too top-weighted with precious Francophilia -- began casting around for fresh influences. They settled on Spain.
Why? Because Spain is cool. Because the Spanish really know how to eat. Because their cuisine can be seen as an enthusiastic blend of haute and peasant fares keyed to an entirely different dining model. Going out for dinner in Spain is neighborhood-centric and an all-night commitment -- two things that Americans don't understand yet, but that American chefs love the sound of. What's more, Spanish cuisine offers an excuse to shrink portion sizes and bulk up menus with things that are fun to cook.
So tapas and small plates became the Next Big Thing. In Denver, Swimclub32, Deluxe, The 9th Door and Somethin' Else are all dedicated to the form. Adega recently went to small plates. Frasca is arguably getting into the market, with its decidedly Italian take on a haute-casual grazing menu. And if that's what the public decides it wants, Rioja is ready, too.
Other restaurateurs have used a different approach to survive in the shark tank. Charlie Master set Brix apart from the crowd with his whole "anti-bistro" thing. By giving his place a punk-rock offset -- admitting, yeah, we're in the Creek, but look: no tablecloths -- he firmly fixed himself as the antithesis of all the fern-bar pretension that surrounded him. He staffed his kitchen with cooks, not chefs, and made a menu that was decidedly downscale and undeniably fun. Oh, yeah -- and cheap, too.
And then there's Goose Sorenson, now sole owner and exec at Solera. In addition to flitting around the country like some kind of cranked-up mallard (he's cooking at the James Beard House in June with a whole gaggle of big names, grabbing a bite at Thomas Keller's New York outpost, Per Se, then flying back to Colorado and heading straight up to Aspen to do the Food & Wine Classic, second year running) and chasing the dream of bona fide food-world celebrity, he's still found time to spin off his talents at Solera (where the board is all foie gras and pinot) into a second venture just down the street at the Ivy Cafe (bagels and coffee). Why? Because there was money to be made.
Two weeks ago, I caught Sorenson's former partner Brian Klinginsmith on the eve of his final exit from Denver and the food scene in general. He was in the kitchen at Ivy overseeing a brand-new crew. "What a transition, man," he said. "I mean, I went from wine junkie to bagel whore, right? And this is just so totally different than what we've been doing at Solera. But we're kicking ass now. This thing is huge."
So huge that 4,300 bagels had gone out the door in the preceding 24 hours. So huge that Sorenson is making plans for an expansion into an open corner of the Premier Lofts building at 22nd and Market streets, which will put him next door to (and in the pocket of) Brix Downtown, already set to open in the project's other ground-floor space. "The deal isn't 100 percent yet," Sorenson cautions. He and Master -- friends outside the business, perhaps soon to be collaborators within -- have been going through the courtship dance for the past two weeks. There have been promises made, declarations of love from both sides, bouts of cold feet, but no wedding. Yet. Still, when the vows are final, we'll have a setup worthy of The Real World: Denver, where we'll finally get to find out "what happens when two restaurant lifers stop being polite and start being real"
"Opening a second business is hard," Klinginsmith said. "Because when you divert from what you know, your ego can get thrown. You know, going from the kind of detailed, fine-dining thing we do at Solera to doing bagels and coffee? But you just do a good job. You bring that same detail to the new place and do the best you can."
Which, of course, is the secret to all this; the sort of classified craft-knowledge that chefs have always understood but never really talked about with the public. When you get right down to it, there's not much difference between grilling a steak for an appreciative customer at Denny's and flipping a filet mignon at the Capital Grille; not much difference between making a great bagel and searing that perfect lobe of foie gras. Cooking is cooking is cooking. The people want bagels? You give them bagels. The people want sandwiches or pizza or a really good fried chicken? You put your head down, pick up the pan and give them your best.
That's what it means to be a chef. At the end of the day, the job will always be about figuring out what the people want -- and giving it to them.
Leftovers: Since it opened almost a year ago in the JW Marriott on Clayton Lane, Mirepoix -- brought to us, at least in part, by Bryan Moscatello and crews on loan from Adega -- hasn't had an easy time selling its vision of uber-haute, veggie-driven fine dining to the mobs flowing through the lobby and out into the Creek. This is ridiculous, because Mirepoix is one of the best restaurants (and Moscatello one of the best chefs) that we have in Denver right now -- the kind of eatery that most cities our size would be lucky to have.
Then again, it makes perfect sense, because a hotel restaurant (no matter which hotel and no matter what the restaurant's concept) is always going to be a tough sell. It has the advantage of a captive audience, but weighing against that is the necessity of providing three meals a day, plus room service, to everyone from a corporate road warrior willing to drop big expense-account dough to some Midwestern family unit on their way to Wally World. But now, with the wildly successful North just a few steps away and Bob's Steakhouse just down the street, Mirepoix has lost some of its proximate appeal.
A hotel restaurant is a tough gig. I've been a hotel chef, and I've never envied Moscatello his position for one minute. But I've also had some truly amazing meals at Mirepoix and some plates that I count among the best I've ever had.
But now changes are coming to 150 Clayton Lane. Not as big as the changes at the Inverness Hotel -- which just shuttered The Swan, its fine-dining destination restaurant, with little warning and no word on what's going to take its place -- but substantial nonetheless. First, owner and managing partner Charles Biederman recently announced a shift in management at the hotel, dropping Sunstone Hotels (the group that oversaw the Marriott's opening) in favor of Sage Hospitality, which manages the Oxford Hotel, among others. This, in turn, caused a ground-level shakeup of managers and front-office types. Susan Stiff, who's been handling PR for the hotel and restaurant since day one, is now back at her old job at Westin Hotels as area public relations director -- a gig she had before signing on with Sunstone. She's been replaced by Sheri Hedum, a food-and-beverage specialist, and couldn't be happier. "It really is a match made in heaven for everybody," Stiff says.
Mirepoix itself has a new manager: Wade Bombenger. And Moscatello will be gone from the line as of June 1, his exec's position likely to be filled by Thomas Baranoucky, an executive sous at Mirepoix who's been with Moscatello for about two years. "The plan was originally for Bryan to open Mirepoix, train a staff and then be done," says Maureen Poschman, who does PR for Adega and Moscatello. "And that's what's happening now -- which for us is great, because it will allow him to focus full time on Adega."
A formal announcement of all the changes at Mirepoix is scheduled for next week, to be followed by the rollout of a new menu on May 18. According to Bob Trotter, the hotel's general manager, the restaurant won't be "re-concepting," but the next menu will be "a little more user-friendly and a little more comfortable."
In my world, that sounds like: "We're turning it into a bar and grill."
At the Sunflower Restaurant up in Boulder, chef Jon Pell has remodeled 90 percent of his menu. But he hasn't turned the place into a bar and grill or steakhouse or anything. He just came up with a hundred or so new things to do with tofu and Grape-Nuts and broccoli, as opposed to the hundred-and-one things he'd been doing with them in the past. It's like the man has a direct line to the vegetable gods or something. Spooky
Finally, congrats to Sam Arnold, owner and chief huckster behind The Fort in Morrison, who took home the International Association of Culinary Professionals "Lifetime Achievement" award last month. According to the IACP, Arnold was honored for his "lasting contributions to the culinary industrydemonstrating a continuing commitment to the culinary arts as a lifetime career." No word on whether he wore his Mountain Man outfit to the ceremony.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.