Jeff Bolton grew up in Arvada, in a time when “downtown Denver was not a place that you went,” he recalls. Laser-focused from a young age on becoming a chef, he decamped for culinary school in New York City and then spent a few years traveling the country. When he returned twelve years ago, he joined the Sage Restaurant Group, helping its hotel-adjacent eateries around town grow while watching Denver become a major dining destination. Almost five years ago, he returned to the northern suburbs, going back to oversee Kachina in Westminster; last month, he helped Sage open a second Kachina, in the Maven hotel downtown, where he now oversees the kitchen.
In the following, Bolton talks about his reverence for food, his love of gardening, and how all chefs are control freaks.
Jeff Bolton: My grandfather was half Spanish and half Cuban. He was born in Florida, and when he was eight or nine years old, his father passed away and he became the man of the house. He started working for B&G Railroad, shoveling coal. When the first computer was developed, he understood how to work it, so the railroad sent him to MIT. Food was almost revered, because they didn’t have a lot of money — he was supporting my great-grandma. He moved to Colorado, got married and adopted my mother, because my grandparents were unable to have children. So I learned how to cook from my grandfather. When I was six, seven, eight years old, I spent one weekend a month with my grandparents. I loved those weekends. We would cook food together. I learned how to flip a burger in a pan when I was seven, and I would come home with splatter marks of grease on my arms, and my mom would call my grandpa and yell at him.
I have two brothers and two stepsisters, and it was always really important to sit down and have dinner together. It was the one time of the day when everyone could come together. Every meal had a salad, protein, starch and sides, never dessert. I was always allowed to help with the salad, and when I was young, I made the dressing. When I grew up a little more, I was allowed to chop the salad, although they only gave me a paring knife to do it. The first time, it was like, oh, no, there’s blood everywhere. I was pushing on the wrong side of the knife.
So I’ve wanted to be a chef since I was eight or nine years old. I inherited that reverence for the food.
I was born and raised in Arvada. One of my brothers is a super-genius, and I followed his path through high school; I’d earned about eight college credits as a senior. But I told all my teachers that I really wanted to be a chef. I had to sit down with a school counselor, who asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?” Everyone tried to talk me out of it. As soon as I graduated from Arvada West, I packed my bags, moved to New York and went to the Culinary Institute of America.
After school, over a four-year period of time, I traveled all over the United States — North Carolina, Texas, Las Vegas, Martha’s Vineyard, New York, Atlanta. I met different people who had different ways to do things. I’d learn about regional ingredients and dishes from cooks who cook this food every day. I’d think, I know how to make this. But until you do some traveling and experience it and talk to the chefs who work with it, it’s hard to fully understand it. You could watch the Food Network all day and never really learn how to cook. You can go to culinary school, but if you don’t put your time and passion into it, you might not become a great chef. That’s why so many people in our industry do travel — they want to work with the best ingredients, talent, cuisine or preparation of a certain dish.
[During that period], I made a very traditional dish that was unlike anything I’d done before. I’d done a lot of research — I’d read a book, looked it up on the Internet, gone to a restaurant and eaten the dish. I practiced a couple times, and it was like, eh, it’s not quite right, but I think it’s pretty good. I did my own spin. It totally bombed. The person who was tasting the food said, “That was so bad I don’t think I would feed it to my dog.” You can read books, you can do research, but you have to have the hands-on experience of somebody teaching you how to do it, or the time to try-fail, try-fail. Now I’ll get super-OCD-focused on one thing; I’ll try and fail until I get it exactly the way I want it to be.
I always wanted to come back to Colorado — I love the outdoors, people and culture. I started working with Sage Restaurant Group twelve years ago; I was the first employee Peter Karpinski ever hired, and I’m still here, which is just as crazy. I opened up the Corner Office and cooked eclectic global comfort food, then went to Second Home for four years and did American comfort food. Sage is really fun; the people here are really passionate. We want to create the best restaurants we can and provide the best food, drinks and hospitality we can, but we’re different and quirky, and my personality matches that, too.
While I was at Second Home, one gentleman who worked for the company said, “We should do a Southwestern restaurant.” He’d spent a lot of time in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and he thought that style of food would work up here. So four of us packed our bags and went down there to eat, drink and experience the culture. In Chimayo, New Mexico, we went to El Santuario de Chimayo, which is this tiny little church. You go through this little door in the back, and there’s this hole in the ground. People make pilgrimages there to take some of the soil, which is blessed by the priest to help with your ailments. Crutches and wheelchairs line the room from people who’ve been healed by the soil; it’s very spiritual. All of the Southwest has this energy and spirit, and I got really excited about it. And the food is very different. It’s heavy with chiles, and not just green. There are twelve different types of chiles that we use in the kitchen, which all have different nuance and heat levels.
I took over Kachina in Westminster after it was open for two months, and I was there for four and a half years. I was very excited about the food. When people hear “Southwestern food,” they think Mexican food, but that’s not right. If you think back during the time of the settlers, Albuquerque and Santa Fe were some of the country’s biggest trading areas, and the cities still have the trading squares, where people sell handcrafted goods. At the time, you got Mexican influence from the south, European influence from the east, and influence from Native Americans in the area. That’s what we try to channel. We have bison on the menu — bison was once the number-one protein in America. I make bison jerky and put it on the charcuterie plate. Charcuterie is just cured and dried meats, and Native Americans were doing that for hundreds of years before Europeans showed up.
We feature quail because it’s an indigenous ingredient. And we bring in ingredients from Native American tribes. All of my olive oil comes from Seka Hills, which supports a Native American tribe in California. I get pima corn grits from Arizona, and when they show up, you’ll see me with my face in the bag, because they smell like toasted peanut butter. We feature the three sisters — squash, beans and corn — because they’re important to horticulture and how Native Americans grew crops.
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You have a ton of families [in Westminster], and it’s more suburban. My family still lives close to there, and when I go visit, it’s still the same streets— it’s a food desert. You just have chains. When Kachina started, we heard often that it was refreshing to have a chef-driven aspect in a restaurant in that area. It was refreshing to have quality ingredients, locally sourced products, something that was a little different. But the restaurant has a huge value component. Coming downtown, we kept some of the core restaurant items, but for the other 50 percent of the menu, we created dishes with more of a downtown feel. There are more high-end, expensive cuts of meats. We added on things that are shareable, and we’re running specials off our chef and butcher menu, because we’re butchering a lot in-house — sides of bison, whole chickens and fish.
Even when I go home, I play with food. This is the fourth year that I’ve had a little garden. At the end of the last season, I was drying chiles all over my house — you couldn’t open a cupboard without finding chiles being hung from them. You’d close it and the chiles would fall all over the place. So I’m doing that all over again, growing Anaheims, poblanos and jalapeños. Once you start growing stuff, it’s addictive. I started with a basil plant — every week, I trimmed it and gave away pounds of basil. Now I grow thyme, green onions, oregano, kale, tomatoes. I would love to do it on a bigger scale, but it takes a lot of time and man-hours. It goes back to that romanticism about food. The first tomato that came up last year — I didn’t even wash it, I just ate it. And it was like, oh, my God, I made that.
Maybe it’s because it feels good to feel like I’m in control of something. Chefs are all control freaks.
Kachina Southwestern Grill
1890 Wazee Street
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday