Ryan Taylor’s journey to the kitchen may have been inevitable — his father is Kevin Taylor, one of Denver’s most prolific chefs — but his childhood wasn’t exactly food-fueled. He didn’t fall in love with fine dining until he started working in his dad’s kitchens, first at the legendary, late Restaurant Kevin Taylor, and then at the now-closed Prima, as well as at the still-very-much-open Kevin Taylor at the Opera House. He’s spent several years honing his own style, one distinct from his father’s, and now, for the first time, he’s getting to showcase his work at a restaurant that he helped build from the ground up. Hickory & Ash opened in July, with Ryan on the burners and his brother Cooper in the front of the house. We recently sat down with Ryan Taylor to talk about how he overcame being a picky eater, the hot sauce he can’t live without, and why the Kevin Taylor Restaurant Group is headed in a more casual direction.
Westword: Your dad is Kevin Taylor, one of Denver’s most influential chefs. Now you’re in business with him at Hickory & Ash. Did you have an early interest in the restaurant business?
Ryan Taylor: When I was growing up, I rarely saw my dad; he was always working so much. And I was a picky eater as a kid — I only ate chicken nuggets for the first twelve years of my life. But when I was fifteen, I needed a job. I started working at Kevin Taylor and learning from him. When I first started, he was still working the line. It was cool to see him cooking, to work side by side — it was super-inspirational. He taught me a lot about cooking, and even more about the business side and opening a restaurant. I fell in love with food and dining and giving that experience to people.
You were a picky eater raised by a chef? What was the food that got you to go beyond chicken nuggets?
Foie gras — it freaks a lot of people out. Dad was doing a party, and he was doing this foie torchon on brioche with apple aspic. It was a simple preparation, and no one does aspic anymore, but it blew me away. Now I have a foie gras tattoo.
At Hickory & Ash, you’re sort of stepping out on your own and taking control of the kitchen. After spending so much time in your father’s kitchens, how did your style evolve to be different from his?
His cooking style is a lot different from mine. I learned a lot of standards and techniques from him, but our styles have diverged. Growing up in fine dining, we focused on French-influenced food. I went to Spain, to Mugaritz in San Sebastian, then a two-Michelin-star restaurant and the fifth-best restaurant in the world, for five weeks. I learned a lot there, and I grew. I started learning more avant-garde techniques — techniques he hadn’t touched on. So I’ve gone more modern. I like fun flavors, not necessarily the old standbys. I’m super into taking flavor inspiration from different places and blending it into one dish: That’s American cooking.
Hickory & Ash seems like a bit of a departure from the fine-dining space your family has traditionally worked within. Tell me about the shift.
For my dad’s whole lineage, the Kevin Taylor Restaurant Group has been a fine-dining restaurant group. But we’re getting away from white tablecloths — we’re doing this together, and we’re just having fun. You can still do perfect food, have perfect service, but you don’t have to be so uptight. Hickory & Ash is about feeling comfortable. People can come in with shorts and sandals and have one of the best meals that they’ve ever had. You don’t have to come in and sit for four hours, but you can, and you don’t have to eat all that time; you can hang out with a drink. We don’t want to be the special-occasion restaurant. We want people to come back. This is food I like to eat, and food my dad likes to eat.
Is it fair to call the food a little more rustic?
My plating style is a little more intricate — I like lots of garnishes. You will see some of that influence on some of the dishes on the menu. The menu reads very simple. For instance, pastrami, Brussels, pumpernickel, mustard: You see a couple of familiar flavors there, but once you see the dish, there are so many more elements that are involved. We’re doing a play on a shrimp cocktail that’s more ceviche-style. That’s something I’ve been eating for basically my whole life; it’s the first thing my dad taught me how to cook, for a school project in the fourth grade, so it’s super-heartfelt for me to bring that here and share that with other people. It brings back memories of going to Mexico. Mexican food is a huge inspiration for me, but we’re doing it with a Colorado spin, with Olathe sweet corn and Alamosa striped bass. And then there’s our mussels dish, which we do like a cioppino. It’s the first dish I was ever allowed to put on the menu at Kevin Taylor; I worked on it for months and months. It’s fun to bring it back here.
After decades in downtown Denver, how did you end up in Broomfield?
We were originally going to do a project here eight years ago in the Loft Hotel, a steakhouse. Broomfield is one of the fastest-growing cities in America; there are a lot of families, and there’s 1STBANK Center, so we pull people from Denver and Boulder. We wanted to be a neighborhood restaurant, and we didn’t want to have to fight the battle of Denver.
Your brother Cooper works here, too, in the front of the house, right? Tell me about what it’s like to work in such a tight family operation.
It’s really nice to have him; I trust him so much. He’s 24. He went to Metro’s hospitality program and graduated with a degree in that. He was raised in the restaurant just as much as I was, but obviously in the front. We’re both hungry. If we’re studying wine, we can do it together. Sometimes if we have an early night here, we’ll sit and read wine books to study for some test. It’s really good to have a partner in that. He helped me study for my cicerone [beer certification] test last October. And he gets to watch people — I don’t. He’s seeing the reaction and getting the feedback, and it’s nice to have someone telling the truth instead of trying to bullshit me. Since we live together, too, though, it’s tiring to go home and still talk about work.
So your generation is taking over. Will you continue to expand the restaurant group, or is this the end?
We’re definitely not done opening restaurants. But we probably won’t go back to white tablecloths. This is more fun, easier, and it’s food we like to eat and share with people. There’s this sense of liberation.
What’s the proudest moment of your career?
Opening Hickory & Ash — doing this with my dad, learning everything from the ground up, and having all the say in the design and menu and cocktail program. This is definitely the biggest thing in my career as of now. When I got 30 under 30 [from Zagat], that was super-cool. Becoming a certified cicerone was super-cool.
How about the biggest disaster?
I spent a little time at Ototo, and one night I burned myself really bad — I covered 20 percent of my body with fryer oil. I was in the hospital for two weeks and out of work for six months. Now I tell everyone not to carry hot fryer oil.
Do you cook at home?
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Definitely. We always do our Sunday family dinner, and I always end up cooking because everyone is afraid of cooking for me, but that’s all I ever want. I usually make tacos — tacos al pastor is one of my favorites. And a lot of Italian food — pasta. Stuff that’s homey; nothing too fancy.
And what’s always in your fridge?
Hot sauce. Valentina. I put it on everything. I’m a huge mustard freak, so we always have mustard. Eggs. If I had a last supper, it would be a classic eggs Benedict with lemony Hollandaise. We’re always trying new beers, so whenever we can, we go to a liquor store and get a bomber of something new and cool. Häagen-Dazs bars are my guilty pleasure. I have a pickle every time I go home.
Hickory & Ash is located at 80001 Arista Place in Broomfield, where it's open from 5 to 10 p.m. daily. Find out more at 720-390-4400 or ktrg.net/hickory-ash.