Saint Louis Barbecue Guru Will Soon Smoke It Up in Denver

St. Louis is among just a few hallowed barbecue cities in America, but even with so much history and lore in that area, chef Mike Johnson, a veteran of the fine-dining kitchens of Emeril LaGasse and Charlie Trotter (as well as his own upscale eateries), made a splash when he opened Sugarfire Smoke House in Olivette (a St. Louis suburb) in 2012. Since then, he's built the company up to multiple outposts in Missouri and beyond, and now he's targeted Westminster for his latest branch. Johnson expects to open Sugarfire Smoke House at 14375 Orchard Parkway in the northern suburb.

"I love Denver," the barbecue master explains. "I lived in Vail and worked at a place called Mirabelle in Beaver Creek. We're pleased to join the barbecue community in Denver."

Johnson has teamed up with Chad and Jamie Green, who will be majority owners in the new Sugarfire. "I was attracted to the quality of the food, the daily specials and the creativity," Chad says of the couple's decision to open a franchise in their home state. "Barbecue is a culture, it's not just a food. You feel that when you walk into the restaurant."

Johnson explains that the Sugarfire team honors the traditions of barbecue through "old-school techniques for brisket, pork, ribs and turkey," using a blend of cherry and hickory wood to impart flavor. But with daily specials and more chef-driven side dishes, the menu stands out as more modern and experimental than those of some barbecue joints. "We make everything in-house — and I mean literally everything," he adds. "And we source locally from each region we're in."

Part of Sugarfire's critical and popular success has come from continuity — keeping the same team together since the beginning. Two original members of that team, chef Clint Whittemore and general manager Liz Krosnicki, are moving to Denver to ensure the launch of the new smokehouse goes smoothly. The other part of the equation is a sense of fun and generous hospitality that Johnson brings to his restaurants; he's known for gestures like showering hundreds of dollars' worth of black truffles over his customers' macaroni and cheese after returning from Italy with a load of the prized fungi.

Johnson has spent time in Denver himself and is friends with GQue Championship Barbecue owner Jason Ganahl. The two also share a love of Ole Hickory smokers, which both use at their respective operations.

The Greens expect to have the restaurant, which they're calling Sugarfire Westy, open by the end of summer.

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