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Good to go: Cook's Fresh Market puts its reputation on the line.
Anna Newell

I watched her walk away. I watched her come back again, smudging the glass on the display case with perfectly manicured fingers. I watched her walk away again, high heels clicking on the tiles, her basket empty but for one lonely glass jar of Stonewall Kitchen raspberry-peach champagne jam.

For ten minutes, I'd been watching her ghost the bakery case with all the casual subtlety of a bad teenage shoplifter. She was young, fit, dressed in a tailored black-over-white business suit, gold anklet, no wedding ring, shopping for one at six on a Thursday evening.

While pretending to contemplate the array of balsamic vinegars in a short aisle, I'd watched her approach the counter no fewer than six times, then balk and walk away. I wasn't going anywhere until I saw what had her so captivated. If there'd been no one around, I'm sure she would have licked the glass.

I studied a bottle of 25-year-old Colavita balsamic as she passed by again. She had the look of a solid professional, an intensely capable woman unused to indecision. At the end of the aisle, she knocked a box of couscous into her basket, grabbed a forty-dollar bottle of cold-pressed Sicilian olive oil off the shelf without even looking at it, hesitated for just a second, and then, finally, raised her hand to get the counterman's attention.

She'd been hypnotized by a bakery tray full of chocolate-chunk brownies, fat squares of chewy dark bliss. She asked for half a dozen, and once she had them, packaged in a plain white to-go box, she trotted hurriedly over to the cash register with the same kind of look -- giddy, excited, a little guilty -- that you see on the faces of men surprised at the mailbox by the newest Victoria's Secret catalogue.

Food is indulgence. Food is fantasy. Pick up the latest issue of Gourmet, open it to any page, and tell me you see anything less than food porn. Just look at those bulging ravioli; those soft, milky-pink curls of prosciutto wrapped lovingly around dewy melon balls; those close-ups of micro-green salads dripping vinaigrette, snapped in soft-focus, lit to accentuate the tender flesh of a single plum tomato; and then the money shot: a delicate fall of crème anglais hung from the corner of a dark-chocolate gâteau.

Food is love, often forbidden love, and Cook's Fresh Market is where you sneak off to when you crave items on your secret shopping list -- one less about sustenance than desire. Tiny speckled quail eggs; red tins of black truffle jus with the labels all in Italian; smooth, pale lobes of Hudson Valley foie gras; a $150 bottle of Il Patriarca balsamic vinegar aged thirty years; fat stringhe del prete or fanciful lingua de suocera pasta striped in pink and cream like ribbon candy; Tuong Ot Sriracha red-chile sauce that's bottled dragon fire. Two dozen kinds of rice, from Arborio and calasparra to Bhutanese red and a black Asian variety called, simply, Forbidden. Mangoes and plantains; canned lychees in heavy, sweet syrup; black truffles in little glass bottles; flash-frozen packages of duck fat.

From behind the meat counter at the back of the store, Bill Roehl -- who also teaches at Johnson & Wales University -- can get you anything your fevered little foodie heart desires (with a few days' lead time). Beef heart, dressed rabbit, caribou saddle, alligator, kangaroo, a whole pig's head...dream big. The cheese list, arranged and tended to by resident cheese whiz Jeremy Myers, is a bible of everything good, aged and stinky in the world, including sage Derby -- a stiff, powerful English Cheddar shot through with marbling of real sage -- and a goat cheese called Bianco Sottobusco that's flavored with white truffles. Its taste was so intense, deep and dirty that I swear I could still taste it two days later.

Ed and Kristi Janos, the owners, chefs and masterminds behind Cook's Fresh Market, employ a small army of chefs, bakers, meat-cutters, pastry cooks, cheese freaks, sauciers and culinary students who work hard to fill all of those cases, coolers and freezers. "We're very careful about who we hire," Kristi says. "And we are very, very fortunate: Ninety percent of our staff is either in culinary school or graduated from a culinary college. And even if we don't have a position for someone when they come through the door, if they're good and they're passionate about what they do, we'll find a job for them. Because otherwise, someone else will hire them, and then when we need them, they won't be available."

Both Ed and Kristi come from food-service backgrounds. Kristi, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, is a veteran of many Midwestern galleys; husband Ed is one of only fifty or so Certified Master Chefs in the United States (no small trick, considering the master certification test is a grueling, ten-day marathon exam in which a candidate's every move and cut are scrutinized, analyzed and judged by a panel of imposing culinary demigods). Ed also teaches at Johnson & Wales and has duked it out for the home team at cooking competitions from Paris to South Africa. But when this pair of die-hard, professionally trained kitchen folks moved from Michigan to Colorado a few years ago, they decided to get out of the restaurant game and open their own market.

 

"Besides lacking many good quality restaurants -- because Colorado has so many chains, you know? -- there was just nowhere to get good quality meats and ingredients," Kristi remembers. "We saw a need for this. It's what we could afford and it was something different, and it lets us see our customers from a whole different perspective."

Once those customers step inside Cook's, they see food from a whole different perspective. "They think we're just a deli or something, and then they find out we're so much more," Kristi says. "I think we get a lot of people in here who come in to explore. Not as many as we'd like, but they'll come."

And when they do, they'll find a menu of prepared foods that changes daily, created in a kitchen overseen by Ed and Kristi along with their sous chefs, Luie and J. "Whatever comes in fresh," Kristi says. "Whatever the cooks are excited about, that's what we'll be using." Sometimes this can make the lineup redundant, as it was on the day I dropped by to find that everything had butternut squash in it, on it or beside it, including a rather ill-conceived butternut-squash risotto. "Yeah, I think I remember that day," Kristi says. "Everyone was just so happy that the new seasonal vegetables were starting to come in."

But overall -- and primarily thanks to the fact that Cook's line is staffed by actual cooks, all passionate, earnest culinary professionals -- the food coming out of this kitchen ranks right up with the fare being presented by high-end galleys around town. Kitchen staffers cook with the same prime ingredients (Haystack Mountain goat cheese and Red Bird Farms natural chickens) that the market sells, and everything that can be done by hand is made that way, including cooking up a dozen stocks (which are also for sale) and grinding and stuffing their own sausages.

On my first stop, I tried a wonderful, simple sausage-and-potato casserole, a ploughman's combination of boiled red potatoes, chunks of spicy Italian sausage and parmesan stuffed into a small foil baking cup with some butter, rosemary, a little salt and pepper, and nothing more. Cook's makes a mean crabcake, too, heavy on the crab, easy on the breadcrumbs, celery-free and spiked with tiny bits of bell pepper -- which tells me that someone in the back of the house actually knows how to do a proper brunoise.

On another night -- and in a rush after a disappointing dinner elsewhere -- I picked up a pair of birds done cordon bleu in a panko-breadcrumb crust packed with fat slices of ham and a blunt, potent Swiss cheese that flavored the meat all the way out to the skin. Adding Cook's twice-baked potatoes topped with herbed Asiago, a pesto pasta salad and some full-bodied, cream-intensive, sweet homemade squash-and-cider soup, I had a solid handmade meal that didn't require any more from me than turning on the oven and finding a clean baking sheet.

Granted, not everything coming out of Cook's kitchen has been perfect. It suffers from the same troubles that bedevil any buffet/cafeteria/salad bar where the food being held for service sometimes has to sit...and sit. Thing is, there's no restaurant waiting until someone orders it to start making that herb-crusted lamb shank, either. You think a diner wants to sit there for four hours while meat marinates? Restaurant kitchens do exactly what Cook's does: prep, prep and more prep. Prep and pantry cooks will lay out entrees by the dozens, setting up every piece so that the dish just needs to be popped in the oven when the ticket comes through. They may even par-cook some things, so all that is required of the line cooks is a little warming, a little sauce, and a sprig of chervil for garnish. In a real restaurant, though, everything can be moistened by stocks, slathered in gravy or set swimming in sauces just before a plate goes out so the customer is none the wiser. Cook's catches no such breaks, and sometimes it shows.

On one stop, I picked up a wonderful Italian stuffed chicken, the bird trussed, stuffed with whole-leaf spinach, pepperoni and strong black olives, then slow-roasted for a deeply flavorful meat. But a second tasting of the chicken left a powerful aftertaste of bitter black olives, whose flavor had been sponged up through the meat over the hours. And while I'll give the bakery full marks for using real butter, eggs and heart-attack-inducing 52 percent butterfat heavy cream in its Old World recipes -- Cook's is truly on the side of the angels when it comes to that stuff -- I'm pretty sure this bakery also produced the worst slice of Key lime pie I've ever tasted. For one thing, the pie isn't supposed to be that chewy -- and my piece had an almost bubblegum consistency, with a texture like pudding skin and a weird, greasy quality that made every bite unpleasantly gelatinous. Second, although the lime flavor should be strong, this stuff curled my tongue, then crawled right up into my sinuses and lived there. It was a great cure for a head cold, not so great as a dessert. Add to these material failings a soggy crust and whipped-cream piping so stale I could crumble it between my fingers, and the pie was a disaster from top to bottom.

 

On the other hand, the bakery case also held handmade cannoli as light and sweet as anything you'd get at an Italian street festival, the filling studded with shreds of dark chocolate, the shell pulled from the oil at that perfect moment between too soft and too hard. And yes, those chocolate-chunk brownies tasted as good to me as they'd looked to the young lady they'd seduced earlier. They were fantastic and fat and decadent and sweet and everything anyone could ever expect from a brownie.

And in today's world, where it sometimes seems that everything is dangerous and everything can kill you, isn't that good enough? If a perfectly marbled steak, a few beads of caviar, a drop of champagne tasted on someone else's lips is what we now have to take the place of all those other good, unwholesome, unhealthy things, then you owe it to yourself to make the most of it. In an age when throaty V-8 engines have given way to nutless three-cylinder wind-up toys; when drugs are bad and having three drinks rather than two with dinner can inspire your paranoid friends to throw you a surprise intervention; when having a cigarette after dinner is illegal and actual sex -- a good old-fashioned roll in the hay with a total stranger -- can kill you, what's left?

Food, glorious food.

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Cook's Fresh Market

1600 Glenarm Place
Denver, CO 80202

303-893-2277

www.cooksfreshmarket.com


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