The first time I saw Keegan Gerhard, it was on TV. That was also the second place I saw him. And the tenth, fiftieth and hundredth.
Given Gerhard's ubiquitous star status, there was a time — like, right up until last week, maybe — when a man (like me) could've been forgiven for thinking that Gerhard, with his booming laugh and big smile, his perfect white movie-star teeth, nerd glasses and non-threatening hair, was solely responsible for propping up the Food Network. Through the weird hours — early evenings when normal people were eating dinner and not watching someone else make dinner on TV, and late at night — Gerhard was always on hand, hosting Food Network Challenge, lending his mug to virtually anything having to do with pastry. Wedding cakes? On duty. Chocolate challenge? Yup. Anytime anyone in the world was trying to win ten thousand dollars by sculpting a Disney princess castle out of white cake and fondant or making an oompa-loompa out of pulled sugar, Gerhard was there, urging them on to greater feats of confectionary weirdness, holding that microphone like he was born with it in his hand.
It was almost as though he'd been specially bred by the Food Network in some secret underground laboratory — a cloning experiment to make the perfect host, charming and harmless and full of gentle humor, with none of Jamie Oliver's cloying laddish sexuality or Bobby Flay's eager, scurrying, rat-like competitiveness. Someone to rope in the housewives, someone who could stand up before huge pastry sculptures of cartoon characters, surrounded by children and food groupies, and not look totally wrong, totally creepy, like a pedophile baiting his basement with sugar cookies and gumdrops. In print, I once said that Gerhard came off like a robot — like something the Food Network executives kept in a trunk, to be hauled out only when they needed an hour filled on a slow Sunday. In private, I wondered what part of his soul he'd sold to get such a gig — to be pulled from the cool and quiet of the pastry department and thrust into the spotlight, made only to chuckle, to kid, to look thoughtful while appraising some patissier's melting chocolate bust of Julia Child — and whether he thought he'd gotten a good deal.
D Bar Desserts
1475 East 17th Avenue
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday
Cake and shake: $9
Milk and cookies: $8
Chocolate and cherries: $10
The first time I saw Gerhard in person was at the James Beard Awards in early June. He was cooking the final course for the awards dinner — a dessert, natch, of smoked cherries and chocolate that involved super-call Scotch as a main ingredient — and because my table was all the way in the back, I stepped outside for a smoke, knowing that it would likely be twenty minutes or more before the servers worked their way to the nobody seats on the mezzanine. The chefs were coordinating plating and service from behind hospital-style scrims in the lobby of the Hudson Theatre at the Millennium Broadway. I, of course, poked my nose in to get a look, and there was Gerhard, looking like Rommel in the dessert — completely in command of his brigade, bound up in his whites, beaded with sweat, arms thrown wide and barking directions at a small army of assistants hunched over the stainless as they decorated, detailed, set trays for runners.
And the first time I saw Gerhard up close? On 17th Avenue, outside D Bar Desserts, the restaurant he and his wife, pastry chef Lisa Bailey, opened this spring right here in little old Denver. He had his whites on, his monogrammed jacket, and he was smiling, headed for the 7-Eleven on the corner just ahead of the first serious dessert rush of the night. Laura and I killed ourselves laughing, thinking about what he could've been picking up, imagining the worst, giggling behind our hands.
Pack of smokes and two bottles of cough syrup to get him through the night.
Inspiration for the night's special chef-tasting menu: all beef jerky and Hostess fruit pies!
Forty packages of those pink coconut snowballs — his secret weakness, what he eats by the double handful, hunkered down in the storeroom or backstage whenever the Food Network cameras aren't on him.
Twenty minutes was all the time we had for laughing; that was what it took for Gerhard to come back to D Bar (empty-handed, by the way, and without any pink coconut stuck to his chin), for the servers to find us outside on the patio and take our order, and for the food to start arriving. After that, we weren't laughing at all. After that, we could hardly breathe — we were too busy stuffing our faces, moaning as if gut-punched, staring at each other slack-jawed, stunned at how this man can cook.
So now, let me say this about Gerhard: He has earned it. The fame, the TV gig, the whites he wears — all of it. Homeboy didn't do chef school; he came up the hard way. He never even wanted to be a chef. Cooking was just something he did while training for the Olympics as a cyclist until one day, he was doing more cooking than cycling and then, another day, he was only cooking. He worked the line before he found his way to the pastry side, then trained with Jacquy Pfeiffer, founder of the French Pastry School in Chicago; did pastry for Charlie Trotter, the Ritz-Carlton and the Waldorf-Astoria, where he cooked a birthday cake for Princess Di and cherry cobbler for President Clinton; served as corporate pastry chef for Dean & DeLuca, executive pastry chef at the Four Seasons Chicago, and has been named one of America's top ten pastry chefs twice.
Now he has D Bar. And he hasn't just lent the place his good name, his likeness, his menu. He's actually here — standing post behind the L-shaped bar close enough that you can reach right out and grab him by the pastry bags — working beside his wife and personally cooking almost every plate that goes out. A bona fide celebrity chef, he could easily have gone the route of Flay or DiSpirito or Ducasse — flitting about from location to location, giving interviews, shaking hands, seeing to the empire and the image rather than the kitchen. But instead, on a Saturday night, Gerhard was making me milk and cookies: fresh-baked, hot from the oven and incredible. A double-chocolate with macadamia nuts so good Laura that threatened to stab me over the last bite, an oatmeal raisin with hints of cinnamon and brown sugar that was simply better than any cookie I've ever had in my life.
It was busy on this Saturday night — bar full, patio full, the twenty-odd seats in the tiny, modernist and spartan dining room full. Nearly everyone ordered the molten chocolate cake (dull mainstay of dessert boards everywhere but textbook here, made to order with Guittard Madagascar chocolate and raspberry ice cream), the cake and shake (meltingly rich chocolate cake with Manjari chocolate frosting and vanilla, chocolate or raspberry shakes in small glasses). But I went for a perfected version of the Beard dessert. It came as a soft pillow of chocolate, almost a mousse, with a stiff bottom and a candied surface with a single large and untouched early cherry on top, poached cherries smeared around the plate in a sauce of cherry juice and Laphroaig Scotch. The smoke flavor was bold and powerful, the sauce bittersweet, the textural balance between the fresh cherry, the poached cherries and the gentle, 64 percent cacao chocolate in ideal equipoise. It was a chocolate-covered cherry as imagined by a guy who wanted to make every element of that already idealized dessert better, more complicated and more deeply rich at the same time.
The dinner menu here is called simply "things we like to eat...," and it isn't so much a restaurant menu as it is the board stolen from the dream snack bar in the cook's Valhalla. Gerhard and Bailey offer salad — baby greens, pine nuts, grape tomatoes and a Meyer lemon vinaigrette, beautifully composed — and Medjool dates served with Marcona almonds, parmagiano Reggiano and smoked bacon. They do a baked mac-and-cheese topped with crushed cheese nips that's white-trash genius, and an avocado, fanned and topped with nothing but a squeeze of lime, British Maldon salt, fresh cracked pepper and a drizzle of olive oil, that's a different kind of genius entirely.
Our dinner took almost three hours. It was worth every minute.
Laura and I came back for lunch a couple of days later and dined virtually alone, drinking Mexican Cokes in the bottle and eating paninis — smashed avocado and cheddar cheese with thick-cut bacon for her, the Presley for me: peanut butter, caramelized plantains and Colorado honey. We watched Bailey doing the fine work on a wedding cake while Gerhard did his prep, wearing a T-shirt, joking around with his staff, good music playing in the back. It felt almost as though we'd come in the back door rather than the front and were being fed in the kitchen, just a little something thrown together between meals.
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And yet, what impressed me just as much as it had impressed me at dinner was the phenomenal amount of attention paid to every single item put before us. Every plate and every element on every plate had been carefully considered, specially sourced and then artfully combined by a chef with a deep and personal understanding of the complicated interplay between them. This was fun food handled with heavy seriousness and respect; a jazzman's tossed-off licks and riffs that seem so light and effortless only because he's practiced them a thousand times out of sight, on his own, until they've become second nature and are ready to be played for the crowd. The best trick any chef can ever play is to make it all look easy.
And when Gerhard is up there, under the lights, behind the bar with his customers around him and orders on the slide, that's exactly how it appears: easy. But it's not.
He may be a celebrity, but the man really knows how to cook.