Presto change-o! Ian Kleinman is finally ready to throw open the doors of the Inventing Room — his Willy Wonka-inspired dessert emporium in the Ballpark neighborhood that will harness the power of liquid nitrogen to wow customers with flash-frozen treats and other outlandish snacks that up until now have only populated the chef’s dreams and visions. His targeted September 26 opening was delayed by a final snafu with the city, but after a few last signatures come through, Kleinman says he’ll be good to go. The most recent issue — among many other holdups, Kleinman notes — was that the liquor license for Lower48 Kitchen extended into the Inventing Room’s space (once Lower48’s separate lounge area, called Service Bar), and since Kleinman isn’t planning on serving alcohol, the city had to remove the liquor license from the Inventing Room’s square footage.
This brick-and-mortar reimagined ice-cream shop is an extension of the catering company and educational program that Kleinman’s been running under the same name for the past several years. Many of the favorites he’s created during that time — space foam, instant ice cream, compressed fruit — will be part of the Inventing Room’s standard menu, but the chef will also introduce plenty of ideas that he’s been formulating but hasn’t had the time or space to execute. “This is my lab, and I can’t wait to get into it,” he says. “It’s an homage to where I’d take my kids — a blank canvas for us to continue to play and experiment.”
The space itself is a kind of shrine to Kleinman’s grandfather, who was a builder (he built his own farmhouse) and experimenter. Kleinman gathered much of the Inventing Room’s decor from his grandfather’s farm and workshop in Kansas: Pipes and tools line the walls and fill the spaces beneath the counter; welding masks look down into the kitchen; and wood and copper contraptions bristle with Edison bulbs and weathered gauges. “I call it ‘farmpunk,’” Kleinman notes.
While he and his crew did much of the work on the interior, Kleinman also hired artist Joel Bryant to create a few pieces to tell an imaginary story of discovering early liquid-nitrogen tanks and ice-cream machines hidden on the farm — connecting the chef’s current passion with his grandfather’s secret, if fictional, past. His grandfather passed away ten years ago, but Kleinman was able to salvage his original workbench, which is now a prep station behind the main counter. There’s also a photo of the elder Kleinman teaching his young grandson how to ride a bike while on vacation in Breckenridge.
The chef plans to continue adding pipes and other knickknacks to the walls so that the physical space evolves along with the menu. “When people come, it will always be new and exciting,” Kleinman says. “Restaurants open and then rest on their laurels. I couldn’t stand to work in a place that I didn’t love.”
Kleinman wants every inch of the Inventing Room to impart a sense of wonder to guests. “You walk in, and you’re mesmerized by what you see,” he explains, “and mesmerized by what you taste. It depends on the interaction between the guest and what we call the ‘nitro-chef.’”
As they step up to the counter, customers will be greeted by this nitro-chef, who will guide them as they select dishes from the menu, a case filled with baked goods and truffles, a cotton-candy machine and a liquid-nitrogen station (behind glass, in case of mishaps), where items like carrot-cake ice-cream sandwiches will be dunked in the ultra-cold liquid for a quick freeze. Most orders won’t take more than thirty seconds to create, and on busy days there will be two chefs and a cashier behind the counter.
Many of the shop’s scientific apparatuses are for show only, but Kleinman invented an actual liquid-nitrogen dispensing tap so that his team won’t need to pour from heavy holding containers. A fifty-gallon tank sits beneath the counter, and the valved tap allows for a carefully controlled amount to be poured; Kleinman expects to go through 100 to 150 gallons of liquid nitrogen a day. A four-ounce serving of ice cream takes four ounces of liquid nitrogen to freeze to the proper consistency, he points out.
Liquid nitrogen isn’t the only molecular-gastronomy tool that Kleinman relies on in order to execute his creations. He also has a vacuum sealer and a shelf full of bottled powders and granules for making different kinds of gels, foams, emulsions and “caviar.” He’s been working with such equipment and ingredients since his days at O’s Steak and Seafood in the Westin Westminster Hotel, where management gave him free rein to pursue his experiments, which were a rarity in Denver kitchens at the time. “The health department would walk in and say, ‘What the fuck is this guy doing?’” he recalls. “I was doing sous vide, liquid nitrogen — things they hadn’t seen before.”
Although many of these techniques are much more common now, Kleinman is still using them to entertain — and for education, too. With his catering company, he’s gone to schools in the metro area to help kids learn about science through food. He’ll continue that mission by opening the Inventing Room to school groups and other children’s programs for demonstrations in the mornings, before the eatery opens to the public at noon. Adults can get in on it, too: Kleinman will open the room for private parties from 8 to 10 p.m. Otherwise, the Inventing Room will be open from noon to 8 p.m. every day except Sunday and Monday during the winter. During baseball season, Kleinman hopes to be open six days a week, but he’ll wait and see how game days affect foot traffic on the block before making a final decision.
While Kleinman gets his fondness for tinkering from his grandfather, he says he owes his passion for cooking to his father, also a chef. His sister and sister-in-law are in the restaurant business as well, and his wife was a chef for Kevin Taylor for several years. She and Kleinman just got married this month, and the Inventing Room catered the wedding; he wrote the menu and did the food shopping, but handed off the execution to his team so that he could be the groom instead of the chef. “I have an amazing crew right now,” he says. “I come from German roots, so when the family gets together, it’s usually heavy stuff — dumplings and stews. It was fun to get everyone together and show them what we’re doing.”
The food at his wedding — including a foie gras-searing station — leaned mostly toward the savory side, but Kleinman expects the Inventing Room to serve about 90 percent desserts. That carrot-cake ice-cream sandwich will consist of two layers of carrot-cake cookie, a filling of cream-cheese ice cream and homemade, whipped marshmallow toasted with a torch. The opening cotton-candy flavors will include rosemary and grape jelly. And Kleinman’s space foam is like a frozen meringue concocted with whipped cream, gelatin and syrup made from melted Lemonheads, all blended together and foamed in a canister before being dropped into liquid nitrogen; customers pop the frozen quenelles into their mouths and exhale cold smoke as the treat melts on their tongues.
Other experiments, like parsnip Mike and Ikes made in a candy tumbler that Kleinman purchased for the shop, are in the works. “It’s all meant to be spontaneous,” he explains.
An ice-cream shop has been one of Kleinman’s goals since he started his catering company, but the road to reality has been long and filled with curious side trips. Last spring, he was a contestant on Restaurant Startup on CNBC Prime, which ended with only partial success. Although Kleinman won his episode, he eventually decided not to take the investment-money prize, so that he could pursue his vision without outside restrictions. On the show, the judges felt that Kleinman wasn’t entirely successful in articulating that vision — but one look inside the actualized Inventing Room is proof that he knew exactly what he wanted all along.
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And that’s nothing less than a playground of culinary wonder for both the chef and his customers.