Mark Monette listened patiently as I rambled on about how surprised I was by the food at the Flagstaff House. But when I finally asked him a question — how he kept things fresh after 25 years at the same place — he just laughed. "I came from the same generation as Thomas Keller," he explained. "It's a passion. I continue to be inspired by different techniques and cuisines."
And continents. The influence of Asia can be seen in the Flagstaff's imported Japanese wagyu, the sticky rice in the lobster soup and the ahi tuna tartare, paired with sake. Europe also had a role, educating the chef on truffles, foie gras and duck confit, as well as pasta-making. And the Kona heart of palm on the sea bass? From Hawaii, where his family opened another restaurant, Monettes, two years ago.
But it was a fight to get the Flagstaff House to this point.
Flagstaff House Restaurant
When Monette returned in 1985 to take over the kitchen at his family's restaurant, he inherited a menu of classic Colorado steakhouse fare. He decided he wanted to make broad changes, taking the Flagstaff away from a place that only served steak and lobster with such standard accoutrements as shrimp cocktail and French onion soup. His first innovation? Wild mushrooms, which were just starting to make it to Colorado suppliers. Then he tried foie gras and white truffles, even though "no one really knew what those things were."
He kept pushing, trying to stay one step ahead of tastes and trends. Still, Monette didn't get to nix the shrimp cocktail and onion soup until twelve years ago. "It was a really good French onion soup," he remembered. "Diners loved it. But I finally said, 'I'm not doing this anymore.' And I stopped."
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The real breakthroughs, though, came in the last decade, as diners' tastes changed. "It's a completely different diner today," he noted. "Our customer and clientele knows the product, and they crave it." That has enabled Monette to offer such items as sweetbreads, blood sausage and Pekin duck livers without having to push them on diners through the nine-course tasting menu (though they're occasionally on the tasting menu, too).
Still, the more things change...
"The restaurant that once was here in the '30s served steaks, trout and chicken, and, well, those things are still on the menu," Monette said, and laughed again.
On the menu, maybe, but in very different forms.