It's funny to watch the evolution of a restaurant scene from the inside; to track, over time, how the pieces all come together.
The first thing any burgeoning scene needs is a solid groundwork of excellent restaurants and pretty good restaurants. A few is not enough. There needs to be a critical mass so that casual diners can go out for a nice dinner one week, enjoy themselves, then start making plans for their next dinner out a week or a month later, and realize that they have more than one or two or three other places to choose from; that while they weren't paying attention, a dozen or more new places opened that all look interesting. There has to be enough action so that the pretty good restaurants force the excellent ones to be better in order to stay at the top of the heap, and the excellent ones all battle among themselves for what dining dollars are available.
It's a Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest thing. As space becomes short and resources (read: talented line cooks and FOH staff, boutique product and customer dollars and attention spans) grow scarce, a carrying capacity is arrived at: the precise number of high- and low-end restaurants any city can support before circumstance, available assets and shortage begin to determine restaurant lifespans rather than the same being determined solely by talent, smarts and hard work. No matter how friendly a scene might seem on the surface, in the backrooms and accountants' offices, it's all dog-eat-dog.
This, I would argue, is healthy. Stress and competition brings out the best in the cook and his industry, the same as they do in nature.
Once the core restaurants are in place and the carrying capacity reached, a scene begins to thrive and expand. New neighborhoods are pioneered. New styles are introduced. Openings and closings become generational -- a sous chef, training in a good house, going out on his own and opening his own restaurant, hiring a sous chef who will, in five or ten years, go on to open a restaurant of his own. Local foodistas go from being thrilled at having some nice restaurant at which to celebrate their anniversary once a year to being thrilled at having such a wealth of places to eat on a Friday night, to arguing over whether to eat gourmet, wood-fired pizza or Edo-style sushi on a Tuesday. The swells who once counted coup by getting a good table at the newest, hottest French or fusion restaurants now get their jollies by claiming to have "discovered" the little pho shop or Ethiopian restaurant down the street that has been there for ten years, and argue over which of five or six dim sum restaurants serves the best shu mai.
This is where Denver was last year -- a good place, an interesting place, a fun place for everyone where even the misery of losing the occasional good restaurant to the fluctuations of the market or plain bad luck was tempered by the sure knowledge that the next week would bring another opening somewhere of something that no one has ever seen before. And it is at this point in the development of any scene that a city begins looking outward, at the cool stuff being done in other cities, in other food arenas. It is at this point that the well-traveled foodie starts complaining about not having this or that and the smart chef, owner or entrepreneur starts listening.
Event dinners? Check out our culinary calendar. Something to do every night of the week, just about.
Food trucks? On it. Steuben's is working on one. Rumor says Frank Bonanno has one in the works, too. Mezcal has its (mostly immobile) taco truck. And there are dozens of loncheras working Federal and Colfax.
And now, it looks as though Denver will be getting something that's been a big draw for the hardcore gastronauts in other big food cities: a (semi) secret, invitation-only underground supper club.
I just got off the blower with Phil Armstrong, a veteran front-of-the-house guy most recently of SugarToad in Chicago, who did time as a partner at Seven on Pearl in Boulder and has been in the restaurant industry since he was thirteen. And he told me about scheduling the very first dinner for his new "underground eatery" called Hush.
"It's a one-night playground," he told me. A supper club that will bring together line cooks, station chefs, stagiers and other working white jackets to cook single dinners for small crowds outside of the traditional restaurant setting.
Partnering up with friend and fellow food-lover Brad Fentress of Studio Como at 2590 Walnut Street, Armstrong will be bringing in line guys to cook the food they want to cook, not necessarily the food their chefs and bosses want them to cook. "It'll be a forum," Armstrong explained, "where rising chefs have a chance to develop their cuisine. You know, when you're staging or working for a chef, it's all about doing what the chef wants. Cooking his cuisine. A lot of these guys don't even know what their cuisine would be."
Armstrong got the inspiration for his underground supper club from working with Jimmy Sneed at SugarToad. "He left a lasting impression that there were a lot of really talented line cooks coming up," he told me. "Guys who worked their hearts out for a bunch of thankless chefs. Hush will be their playground."
The plan right now is to hold the dinners (just one a month to start) inside the Studio Como space, using some of the super high-end commercial kitchens on display at the design studio and serving a very limited number of friends, family and special guests. And for the first dinner, scheduled for January 9, he's got some serious heavy-hitters lined up: a bunch of line cooks he's bringing in from Alinea -- Grant Achatz's award-winning molecular gastronomy restaurant and mad scientist laboratory in Chicago.
The next month, though, Armstrong told me he'd be turning to the local community of chefs and line cooks. He's got a few friends in Boulder who are already interested, and he's poking around Denver for up-and-coming line guys as well, looking for the "undiscovered, unappreciated, or rising stars struggling to hit their stride in a competitive market."
Sounds like a brilliant idea, and something I wish we'd had in Denver years ago, since similar, half-secret, invite-only dinner clubs have been up and running in some of the bigger food cities (New York and Seattle, notably) for a long time.
And what does Armstrong plan to charge for the privilege of a private dinner cooked by some of the weirdest and most talented line guys in the country? Nothing. There'll be a "suggested donation," he said, but it's important to him that Hush not be seen as a money-making venture.
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"It's not meant to be profitable in any way," he insisted. "We're not looking to make a buck." He's just looking to bring some glory to the under-appreciated white jackets in town -- a noble aspiration if ever I heard one.
Armstrong told me that he'll soon have a (very simple) website up and running at www.hushdenver.com -- but for the most part, he's trying to keep this whole experiment kinda quiet, kinda private and very exclusive. It's more for the chefs than for the people right now. But if it becomes popular? If people start beating down his doors looking for ways to get on the list? Well, who knows?
"That is why we're calling it Hush, after all."