SAME Cafe's Brad Birky on food trucks, bottom-feeders and why T-shirts are better than chef's coats
2023 East Colfax Avenue
This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Brad Birky, executive chef/owner of the SAME Cafe. You can read part two of this interview right back here tomorrow.
It's 3 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, an hour after closing time, and Brad Birky, clad in a T-shirt and shorts, is in his open kitchen, rolling out pizza dough for tomorrow's lunch rush. His wife, Libby, is presiding over the cleanup efforts, working with a handful of volunteers, all of whom have offered to donate their time to pay for their meal. It's just another typical day at the SAME Cafe, the donation-based, pay-what-you'd-like restaurant that Brad and Libby opened four years ago on a wing and a prayer. "It cost us just under $30,000 to open the cafe, and every cent of it was ours," says Brad, who jokes that he and Libby paid off their car loan in full "so if it all fell through, we'd have a place to live."
Brad, who was born and raised in a small farm town in Illinois, comes from a family of volunteers, as does Libby, and they've incorporated this inherited altruistic passion into their own lives. While working toward a computer-science degree at the University of Missouri, both volunteered in soup kitchens once a week for four years before eventually moving to Denver and donating hours to the Catholic Worker House, where they prepared meals for the people living there. "We started soul-searching, knowing that we wanted to make volunteering a part of our daily lives, and we wanted to keep reaching out to people just on the verge -- the ones who weren't completely down and out but who couldn't afford their rent, medication, car payments or milk for their kids -- and that's how our concept for a donation-only cafe came about," explains Brad. He took a series of culinary classes at Metro State to learn the ropes of working in a professional kitchen, and in October 2006, he and Libby opened the doors to the SAME Cafe.
"During the first few weeks, everyone was looking around for a menu and prices and trying to figure out what kind of place they'd just walked into," remembers Brad. "We constantly had to give people the donation spiel, but slowly, word started getting out." There were naysayers and realists who predicted -- wrongly -- that the concept would never work, but they "were few and far between," Brad says. "It's not a concept that can fail, because if we serve just one meal a day, it makes at least one person happy, and if all else fails, we slap prices on the menu. It's not a high-risk venture."
Since opening, Brad and Libby have doubled their square footage and gone from serving thirty people a day in an eight-hour time frame to feeding 75 people a day during a three-hour window. Perhaps most important, they've also become the "unofficial" go-to brains for those who want to duplicate their efforts elsewhere. "We love that the concept is being spread -- it's so awesome -- and we do what he can to help people get off the ground," Brad says. But he adamantly refuses to entertain the idea of franchising SAME. "That won't ever happen," he insists. "We're very happy with what we have."
Six words to describe your food: Fresh, organic, seasonal, tasty, approachable and simple.
Ten words to describe you: Witty, absentminded, methodical and patient, with a sense of humor.
Culinary inspirations: I've always looked up to Alice Waters because of her work in supporting the use of fresh and local ingredients in the culinary scene.
Favorite ingredient: Garlic, because it keeps the vampires away.
Most overrated ingredient: Lobster. Besides being a bottom-feeding, insect-looking creature, unless it's cooked perfectly -- which is rarely the case -- it tastes and feels like rubber in your mouth.
Most underrated ingredient: It is not an ingredient at all, but roasting is an underused technique that we use a lot at the cafe to add flavor, color and depth to many of our dishes.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Golden beets from Granata Farms, a family-operated garden right in the city, less than a mile from our space. Elaine Granata grows food for us and other nearby restaurants and specialty markets using an approach that has become known as SPIN, or small-plot intensive. They have a CSA, and while they're not certified organic, we love that they follow all the national standards for organic production. Elaine and the CSA members are great supporters of the cafe, and we love having the availability of fresh produce right from our neighborhood. Oh, and these beets taste like candy when you roast them.
Best recent food find: Fried plantains and homemade corn nuts at Pisco Sour, a new Peruvian restaurant on East Colfax. We just moved to the culinary wasteland of East Colfax, just shy of Aurora, and we like to frequent neighborhood joints. This one was particularly interesting in that they send out this little bowl of fried plantains and corn while you're waiting for your meal; it was the best part of dinner that night. I'd go back just for those.
One food you detest: Water chestnuts. They're useless and have no flavor. I used to hate celery, too, but then I went to culinary school and learned why I should use it. When you put celery in soups or stocks, it actually adds balance and depth.
One food you can't live without: Bacon. I don't think that requires any
Biggest kitchen disaster: At our soft opening in October of 2006, my wife zapped herself when she was plugging in the food processor while standing on the recently mopped floor. Everyone in the restaurant, which was full, thought her falling to the ground was funny; the black zap marks on her hand proved otherwise.
What's never in your kitchen? A chef's coat. I'm an informal kind of guy, and I don't refer to myself as a chef. I'm a cook; I cook food. I don't think I'll ever be comfortable being called a chef or wearing a chef's coat. And, really, who wouldn't want to go to work every day in a comfy T-shirt?
What's always in your kitchen? Kosher salt and bleu cheese.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Locally grown produce, both in our markets and restaurants. For a while, Libby and I were only eating local, organic produce. We started back in January, and in general, we found that there were basically just a small handful of places in town that were really using local and organic ingredients.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Is it too early to say food trucks? There are a couple of trucks that we're fans of -- specifically, the Steuben's truck and Dylan Moore's Little Orange Rocket, both of which serve some great roadside food -- but really, people: Just go to a restaurant and eat. I don't really understand the concept of high-quality food being served out of a truck. In the hands of the wrong people, a food truck is just dangerous.
One book that every chef should read: The Soul of a Chef, by Michael Ruhlman. I love his behind-the-scenes focus on the kitchen of the French Laundry. I'm a die-hard foodie, and I think every chef is a foodie -- or why else would they stand in front of a hot oven for hours at a time sweating their balls or lady parts off? It's because we love to produce good food, and this book just gets to the heart of all of that.
Hardest lesson you've learned: You know all those other people who are in the kitchen with you? They're there to help. I've had to learn to delegate tasks and do a better job of being clear about my expectations. It's been really hard, because I've had to learn to let go of some responsibilities in the kitchen, while at the same time maintaining the standards that we require.
What's next for you? I'm thinking about buying a food truck...
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