Chef and Tell with Nelson Perkins from Colt & Gray
1553 Platte Street
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 4-9 p.m. Sunday; brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Nelson Perkins frowns, rolls his eyes and lets out a groan when I ask him about the "G" word. "I finally just got so tired of people making way too much out of the gastropub label that I stopped using it altogether," says Perkins, executive chef of Colt & Gray, the sleekly casual restaurant he opened as a gastropub in August 2009 with chef de cuisine Brad Rowell. "I still don't think people really understand the concept of a gastropub -- that the 'gastro' part of it reflects a food-driven pub -- so let's just say that we're a comfortable neighborhood restaurant with high-end food," he declares, hoping to silence the debate once and for all. "We're just Colt & Gray; come in and try our food."
Perkins, who was born and raised in Colorado, started dabbling in the restaurant business before he was a teenager, first as a busboy at Bonnie Brae Tavern, and later as a server and cook with Occasions by Sandy, a local catering company. He eventually chose a different fork in the road -- one that led to a lucrative career as a stockbroker. Still, he says, "I'd wanted to do something in the food industry for years, and I knew I had a knack for cooking, so I came home from the office one night and threw out some random idea for a restaurant to my wife, who told me to either shut up about it or do something about it."
Perkins went with the latter, packing up his wife and two kids and moving to New York City, where he attended, and graduated from, the French Culinary Institute. He staged at Public and Blue Hill, two renowned New York restaurants, where he perfected his cooking techniques, worked his way through the stations and immersed himself in vegetables, a zeal that he attributes to Blue Hill owner-chef Dan Barber. "I wanted to learn everything I could about vegetables," he recalls, "and Dan was the perfect person to learn from, because he used every vegetable you can think of and he treated them so gently."
Armed with an affinity for every vegetable from aubergine to zucchini, Perkins returned to Denver in late 2007. At first, he says, the goal was to find an inn or boutique hotel, but after several months of futile searching, he turned his focus to restaurants, and after eight months of traipsing through spaces, he snatched up the parcel on Platte Street -- around the corner from Sushi Sasa and down the street from My Brother's Bar, Proto's and Paris Wine Bar -- that's now Colt & Gray.
"This whole restaurant experience has been way more work than I ever imagined," Perkins admits. "But from day one, my whole attitude has been that we were going to be one of the best restaurants in Denver, and I think we're growing into that. We buy the best ingredients we can, and we let the purity of those ingredients shine." The only thing missing from the menu, he muses, is duck testicles. "God, they're delicious, but I don't think anyone would order them." Wrong.
In the following interview, Perkins professes his love for offal, ballyhoos fennel and beer, concedes that he needs a slab of steer at least once a week, and argues that chain restaurants aren't the pillar of evil.
Six words to describe your food: Dynamic, creative, approachable, diverse, seasonal and honest.
Ten words to describe you: Determined, passionate, responsible, grounded, confident, curious, introspective, realistic, reliable and creative.
Favorite ingredient: Duck. Every bit of it -- the tongue, breast, fat, legs, liver, heart and testicles -- is delicious. Lamb is a close second, for all the same reasons.
Best recent food find: An ancient recipe for brawn that we found in a paperback cookbook of English cuisine that was written in the early 1800s. We tweaked it and made our own.
Most overrated ingredient: Cream. We can -- and do -- create much of the same texture and richness that you can get with cream by using vegetable purées. Using vegetable purées also results in a healthier product with a greater depth of flavor. Don't get me wrong: I like cream, and it has its place, but too many people use cream and butter as a crutch.
Most undervalued ingredient: Fennel. It's an underrated and under-utilized aromatic that adds great depths of flavor. We use a ton of it at Colt & Gray.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Avery beers. We just did a beer-pairing dinner with the Avery folks, and we used their beers as well as their hops and barley in our cooking. The food was great, and pairing it with their beers made it really special. I haven't cooked a lot with beer -- and never with hops -- so it was really fun.
One food you detest: In the right hands, I think just about anything can be made to be delicious. That said, I'm not a big fan of veal kidneys.
One food you can't live without: A good steak. There are only a few foods I really crave: a good steak, sushi, foie gras and ice cream -- but a steak is something I need. I don't know if I'm iron-deficient or what, but if I don't have a good piece of beef at least once a week, I get grumpy.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the best: Microbreweries. Denver and the surrounding areas are putting out some really great craft beers.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the worst: I've been all over the world, and I can honestly say that, foodwise, Denver doesn't have the worst of anything. But I'd like to see us have more of the best. Considering the size and sophistication of Denver, we underachieve. There's no reason why we shouldn't have the best Mexican food, or the best Thai food, or a great late-night dining scene. We definitely have the potential to be the best in multiple areas, but we're still sort of straddling mediocrity.
Best food city in America: New York, partly because I know it so well, but mostly because of the sheer number and diversity of restaurants. New York has a huge number of creative minds competing to be the best. It's a difficult city in which to succeed, but like wine grapes, adverse conditions can often create amazing products.
Current Denver culinary genius: Toshi at Sushi Den. He survives it all and continues to keep up the quality and creativity.
After-work hangout: My bed.
If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be? Winston Churchill. He was amazing, and he loved to eat and drink. I think my food would make him happy, and he would make me laugh.
Favorite celebrity chef: I'm a big fan of Jacques Pépin, and I like Ina Garten and Mario Batali because you can follow their recipes and the dishes actually come out exactly as you'd expect.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Most of them. There are too many food personalities who have either never or rarely worked in a professional kitchen. And yet they act as if they know all there is to know about food. The worst of them all is Gordon Ramsay. Chefs who scream and curse piss me off.
What's your favorite knife? I have an old, wooden-handled Chicago Cutlery chef's knife that I use for almost everything. It's sharp, holds its edge and just feels right in my hand.
Favorite music to cook by: Country and Western, but my staff would sooner have me drawn and quartered than have to listen to it in our kitchen.
Hardest lesson you've learned: You can't please everyone -- your patrons, critics or employees -- so I've learned to take criticism for what it's worth. I try to provide value for my customers and to be fair to my employees, but no matter what I do, someone is destined to end up disgruntled. I try to make people happy, but if I can't, I no longer beat myself up over it.
To read the rest of Lori Midson's interview with Nelson Perkins, click here.
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