The Kitchen gives Boulder a true sense of community
At the Boulder Farmers' Market a couple of summers back, John Long — round, garrulous, deeply knowledgeable about Colorado agriculture and the quintessential pig farmer — put his arm around my shoulders and led me to a booth where chefs from The Kitchen were serving his product: pulled pork on rolls from Udi's, topped with a bright, sweet-sour apple-cabbage dressing. I don't know if it was the ambience of the market, the scintillating freshness of the ingredients, the skill of the cooks, the presence of John beaming beside me or the fact that the handsome Italian brothers who staff the Udi's stand had been flirting with me only minutes earlier (it's their penchant for flirting with old ladies, I'm pretty sure, that keeps their spot hopping all day), but at that moment, in that place, that pork sandwich tasted better than any sandwich I'd ever had in my life.
When they opened the Kitchen in 2004, chefs and co-owners Hugo Matheson and Kimbal Musk were driven by a desire to create community. On any evening, customers can sit at a long community table in the restaurant; on Mondays, there's also a family table: Matheson's re-creation for the public and any food provider who happens to drop by of the informal meals enjoyed by his staff. This commitment to community is not the sentimental impulse of your typical Boulder yuppie. It's less showy and much deeper, connected to the kind of food Matheson wants his kitchen to turn out: low-key and unpretentious, food that brings back memories of childhood — if, that is, you happened to grow up in rural France, or your mother cooked the way Matheson's mother did, cooking what was fresh and available every day, from kale from the garden to a leg of lamb. Matheson's kind of home cooking is about using everything — beef marrow, the carcass of a roasted chicken, "respecting the food that you have, and eating what's in your fridge rather than running out all the time to buy new stuff."
Matheson's background is both homely and cosmopolitan. As a kid, he wanted to be a farmer; growing up in England, he spent time working at an uncle's dairy farm and for a sheep-farmer friend. He doesn't romanticize farming unduly, but he does use as much local product as possible, and when he has to go further afield, he works with a web of small and artisanal producers. In 1996 he was working with Jamie Oliver at London's River Cafe when Oliver was discovered during the filming of a television show. "He was making a risotto," Matheson remembered when I met with him at the Kitchen one afternoon, "and they said, 'You could be a personality.' This was an amazing community with a rawness you don't find here — more people then doing their own thing in small dining rooms and pubs, people with their own kitchens. You didn't get labeled with the term 'fine dining.' They were just passionate. It was an intense place, London in the 1990s, a phenomenal place to be for food. King's Road — that whole street was energy. Now it's just the Gap and Banana Republic. Gordon Ramsay used to be at the restaurant every day."
The Kitchen has been much lauded for environmentalism — wind-powered energy, compostable containers, the staffer who uses spent cooking oil to power his car and gets mentioned in every article about the place — but I got the impression that Matheson is a little tired of that particular trope. That's what the publicists wanted to stress, he said, and of course he does those things because one should, but really it's about the food.
I return to the Kitchen to eat with two friends — brothers — on a bitter Thursday night. The place is so unpretentious, so apparently casual, that it takes a while before you absorb all the knowledge and thought that's gone into the decor. Take the requisite chalkboard on the exposed brick wall, for example: Unlike boards I've seen in other bistros, the writing on this one is neat block print. You can watch the chefs work in the kitchen through a window in the back wall — again, a common practice. But someone has framed the scene with great artfulness: The window is smallish and edged by a bright metal strip, which throws back the light from the ceiling and the candles on each wooden tabletop; a pile of loaves intrudes into the scene from the bottom, a row of kitchen implements dangles from the top. Artful synthesis is everywhere. Sure, there are metallic touches, including synthetic-looking gray chairs and the huge, brutal gray pipe that seems to dissect the ceiling of almost every hip eatery these days. But the effect is mitigated by wood, brick and candlelight, and though the dining room is noisy, the noise is muted by baffles. The space is a clever combination of contemporary and old-fashioned, cool and warm, noisy and intimate. Even the servers' outfits — gray but non-shiny shirts, jeans — take up the theme.
Everyone who works at the Kitchen seems to be beautiful — the men as taut as Marines (and general manager Ray Decker is actually an ex-Marine), the women slender and graceful — but our waitress is the most beautiful of all. She's tall and dark-haired, she knows the menu inside out, and she evinces the tiniest touch of arrogance, just enough to offset a warmth and assiduity that might otherwise be cloying. Her background is with San Francisco's famed Zuni Cafe, she tells us; she's been working at the Kitchen for four years and wouldn't want to work anywhere else in Boulder. She misses San Francisco's diversity and edge, she says, the occasional parade days when gay diners showed up in leather and chains; in Boulder, meanwhile, she's learning more than she ever believed possible about the variety and severity of allergies people can suffer.
We order appetizers: prosciutto crespelle, the blanket of unctuous cheese over the prosciutto pricked to liveliness by a garnish of shaved fennel and apple; hand-rolled gnocchi with surprising little chunks of shrimp popping up on the ends of our forks; plump mussels in a belly-warming curry-chili sauce. Matheson may be keeping the food at the Kitchen simple according to his own lights, but it goes many long steps beyond home cooking.
By the time the entrees — or as the menu has it, mains — arrive, we're in a happy, talkative haze, helped along by glasses of Juan Gil. The Kitchen boasts a first-rate wine list. Divvying up our three plates — mushroom risotto filled with the dark, humus-y murmur of Hazel Dell's mushrooms; a plate of sweet, fresh-seared Maine scallops topped with vibrant salsa verde and grounded by an earthy bean ragout; and that winter lifesaver cassoulet, here with duck, pork (yes, it is John Long's) and house-made garlic sausage — we talk about Governor Bill Ritter's surprising decision not to run for a second term; the website faddiet.com; tenants' rights; my grandson's amazement at the wonderful tower of LEGOs my architect husband built for him; and why we can't stop emptying the basket of strong-crusted, brown Udi's bread that the servers keep attentively refilling. I contemplate the perfectly cooked piece of scallop on my fork and think about what Matheson said about his seafood supplier in Maine: "In halibut season, she sent a photograph of a guy on a boat holding up three fish and asked me, 'Which one do you want?' She's trying to keep her community alive and thriving." If he used a Denver outfit, he added, no one would notice whether he ordered or didn't, "but if I stopped buying from her, she'd call, asking what we can work out. These people's livelihood depends on it."
There's another connection pushing insistently at the edge of my consciousness. The dusty, crowded front room of a secondhand bookstore called Stagehouse II once occupied this very space, and I feel it bleeding through the brilliance of the contemporary dining room like a palimpsest. Except that calling Stagehouse II a bookstore is a bit like calling Albert Schweitzer a dentist or Nelson Mandela a politico. Walking through the front door and along the narrow corridors between tables of prints and objets d'art and tall shelves of books, I always felt like Alice in Wonderland entering the shop that was staffed by a sheep and "seemed to be full of all manner of curious things — but the oddest part of it all was, that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty; though the others around it were crowded as full as they could hold. 'Things flow about so here!' she said at last in a plaintive tone, after she had spent a minute or so in vainly pursuing a large bright thing, that looked sometimes like a doll and sometimes like a work-box, and was always in the shelf next above the one she was looking at."
Dick Schwartz was the creator of this legendary and magical place, a man of tremendous energy and intellect. For several years he was sick with some disease I never quite understood that was withering his heart, he told me; he attributed its cause to either his Irish-Eastern European heritage or to having drunk too much tequila for too many years. Or perhaps both together. He desperately wanted to live, and he fought for his life with every fiber of his being. He told me once about the terror-filled nights that he could get through only by listening to opera, and ever since, I have held the image of him sitting up in bed, so thin and so browned by the sun that he seemed a skeleton already, shining old bones, hardened and indestructible, while great washes of sound, the human voice at its most transcendent, buoyed his spirits. A dedicated antiquarian and haunter of estate sales, Dick found one of his most persistent pleasures in linking past and present, in bringing to those of us still on earth the breathing culture of those who had departed. We were standing in his shop — near the very table where I'm sitting with Rob and Dan — when he told me that he'd recently acquired a manuscript annotated by Galileo himself. When you get to hold something like this, he told me, the ground trembles underneath you.
Dick's grief at having to give up his bookstore was mitigated by what he knew of the new tenants. He believed in Matheson and Musk's mission. He loved the Kitchen, frequented the dining room, recommended it to everyone he knew. One of the farmers with whom Matheson now works, Paul Cure, assisted Schwartz in his book collecting for many years. Today he and his wife, Anne, provide the Kitchen with produce and the occasional lamb, pig or goat carcass.
We are brought the dessert menu. The pastry chef is Nathan Miller, who worked at Danube, Aureole and Jean Georges. True to the spirit of the Kitchen, he has refrained from creating hugely elaborate or experimental desserts here. The menu offers sticky toffee pudding, pot au chocolat, a housemade chocolate bar studded with additions that vary nightly from cardomom pods to hot peppers, a cheese plate and — somewhat surprisingly — that demotic treat churros, baked both tender and crisp, and served with a little pot of chocolate anglaise on the side. By the time we've sampled a few of these treats and had our coffee, we're so full we can hardly move. The beautiful waitress brings boxes for the food we haven't been able to finish.
Restaurants are supposed to make you feel the way we do as we wander back out into the freezing night air, pulling up our coat collars, talking about everything and nothing. "If you find relationships and connections in a community," Matheson had told me, "your whole life starts to find a balance."
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.