"We set out to do a small, simple restaurant, not to blaze any trails," Alex Seidel, chef-owner of Fruition, told Westword two years after he opened that award-winning restaurant."The positive reaction has been fantastic, but we never expected this kind of attention. I'm just a simple chef who cooks food."
A simple chef who continues to collect accolades from around the country and who won the Outstanding Professional Award from the Colorado Restaurant Association this spring. And now he's a simple chef who's about to open a much bigger restaurant: the 5,000-square-foot Mercantile Dining & Provision in Union Station, whose kitchen alone is bigger than all of Fruition. See also: The Dish on Paul and Aileen Reilly, the CRA's Exceptional Newcomer Award-Winners
And while he's scrambled to get Mercantile ready, Seidel has continued to run not just Fruition, but Fruition Farms, a ten-acre artisanal sheep dairy and creamery in Larkspur where he grows vegetables and makes cheeses. The food from Fruition Farms and the dishes he makes at Fruition are all part of what Seidel has planned for Mercantile. "It's taken three years to figure out the concept," he says. "The opportunity was too hard to pass up because of what it means for Denver. We're growing as a community, and we're on a solid path."
Somehow, Seidel found the time in his incredibly busy schedule to answer a series of questions we presented other CRA award-winners; his answers follow.
What was your first restaurant job?
Dishwasher at a place called Swingers, a rib-and-steak joint in Wisconsin. I was fourteen.
When did you realize you would make your career in the restaurant industry? Probably the conversation with my mother when I told her I was dropping out of college -- after three and a half years -- to go to culinary school.
What made you decide to make Colorado the focus of that career?
I had a great opportunity to move from a position I had in Monterey, California, to Telluride. I stopped in Vail on my way and wound up dropping a résumé at Sweet Basil and got a job. I went back to California, gave my notice and moved to Vail.
What was the dining scene like when you got your start here?
When I moved to Vail, I thought the food there was better than the food in Denver; that's switched now. When I first got to Mizuna, I think Frank Bonanno was serving salmon on mashed potatoes with beurre blanc.
What was your favorite restaurant then?
In 2002, it was Mizuna; that's why I chose to go there.
What is your favorite restaurant today?
What have been the best developments in the local dining scene since you got your start?
There's become this collaboration of artisans -- everyone from brewers to distillers to cheesemakers, gardeners and farmers. Over the past ten years, everyone has connected themselves to the history and origins of food and beverage, and it's made our dining scene that much cooler.
What have been the worst developments in the local dining scene?
While independent restaurants have grown, so have chain franchises. I'd like to see independent restaurateurs flourish and the others shrink.
What have been the most surprising developments?
How quickly our community has grown, and how the food culture has grown. What amazes me most is how well the dining community has adapted and followed suit.
How have you changed the way you do business, and why?
I don't know if we've changed the way we do business, but the business side has become more important to me -- making sure all the areas outside the kitchen are covered with the same level of detail we give the kitchen.
How have consumers changed during your tenure?
I think they've become more educated about origins, and I think they've become more educated about higher quality -- and they also demand the higher quality. They're looking for diversity now, when several years ago they were looking to stay in their comfort zone.
Who is the most interesting person on the scene right now, and why?
Chad Colby from Chi Spacca in L.A. He's a really good dude -- humble, soft-spoken -- and his sourcing is impeccable. He really takes approachable food to the next level. It's amazing.
If you'd like to see one thing happen to the local dining scene, what would it be?
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Honestly, I'm really excited and happy with our current dining scene. I like the development in where we're going -- the amount of eyes looking on our city, the quality of chefs and restaurateurs moving here. Continued growth: How can you ask for anything more than that? This interview was originally published in Dish, our annual guide to the Denver dining scene.