Chris Thompson moved with his mother from Long Beach, California, to Telluride when he was a kid, and quickly adapted to mountain-town life. He'd always had a love of the outdoors, engendered by camping, hiking and fishing trips with his dad in the Angeles National Forest just north of L.A., so it was no surprise that he took up snowboarding. But it was surprising when, as a teenager working as a dishwasher and prep cook to make money for winter sports, he found himself drawn to the kitchen -- despite a previous lack of interest in cooking.
Part of the draw was the supportive group of chefs in Telluride's small but worldly restaurant scene. "I wanted to learn and push to be better," recalls Thompson, "and I had teachers who wouldn't let me fall short of that."
Soon, though, he had cooked at or run just about every notable kitchen in town. "I was looking at buying a restaurant at 28 and thinking maybe it wasn't such a wise idea," he recalls. So instead, he put out feelers and talked to friends, who convinced him that San Francisco was the place for young chefs who wanted to make a mark. "I had a big chip on my shoulder and a lot to prove to myself," he says. "It was definitely a sink-or-swim experience."
Thompson jumped into the deep end of that internationally acclaimed food city's talent pool, working at Prospect (sister restaurant to Boulevard, one of the top eateries in the country) and also as sous-chef at Spruce when that restaurant earned its first Michelin star. But it was his work with salumi and wood-fired cooking as executive chef at A16 that gained Thompson the most attention. "We earned the Bib Gourmand all three years," he says, referring to Michelin's ranking for good restaurants at moderate prices.
Thompson says he was content as "a medium-sized fish in a huge pond" in California, but he realized that with the hectic pace, high property values and elevated costs of running a business in San Francisco, he might never have the chance to own his own restaurant or enjoy the lifestyle he'd come to love in Telluride. So he began looking at menus from Denver restaurants based on recommendations from friends and started thinking about quality of life. And during a few visits here, he was surprised at the level of the restaurant scene. "Denver hardly resembled what I remembered from the mid-'90s," he says. "There's a substantial product being created, the talent to execute it and the demand to sell it. It's a great food city."
So when the job at the Nickel, the new restaurant in the refurbished Hotel Teatro, came his way, he took it. Wood-fired cooking and salumi are still the focus of his cooking style, and the Italian influence is strong. Thompson visits Italy regularly (over the past three years, he's made five trips there that were each at least two weeks long) and is a certified Neapolitan pizzaiolo, having taken a two-week program in Naples that included staging in the city's best pizzerias. Between Rosetta Stone and staging at many restaurants in Italy, he's also taught himself Italian.
Although the wood-fired grill and rotisserie in the Nickel kitchen wasn't built for baking, Thompson has been experimenting with a grilled flatbread that captures the essence of Neapolitan wood-oven pizzas. He also leans on his sous-chefs for creative development: "I plant the seed and watch it grow." After all, since he's the executive chef for the Hotel Teatro's entire food program, he has less and less time to spend actually cooking. "When you're a cook, all you want is to be a chef," he says. "But when you're a chef, all you want to do is cook."
Part of his time away from the grill is spent on the Nickel's "menu matrix," which Thompson uses to train cooks as well as servers. The matrix includes food photos, descriptions, recipes, ingredients and even allergy restrictions for each dish, so that cooks can master the dishes and servers can talk to customers about detailed aspects of the menu. New items start with an idea that he and the sous-chefs create on a small scale -- perhaps only one or two dishes as examples. If those go well, he'll order the ingredients to do a verbal special -- seven to twelve portions -- to give guests a chance to try the new dish. Only after that will the most successful be added to the printed menu.
Thompson took a few minutes out from his busy schedule to answer questions about the food that he and his staff are turning out at the Nickel, as well as his favorite dishes outside of his own kitchen.
Keep reading for a Q & A with Chris Thompson.
Westword: What's your primary goal for your menu and cooking style at the Nickel? Chris Thompson: Rusticity with a sense of refinement. Placing elegant touches that complement minimally manipulated ingredients so as not to disrupt the intent of Mother Nature. Allowing well-thought-out, well-procured items to speak for themselves.
How's the menu going at the Nickel? Are there any dishes that have sold better than expected? The Wagyu burger, wild Coho salmon with butterscotch miso and the Wagyu beef skewers with avocado. A newer dish that's selling well is the wood-grilled octopus with green olives, potato and celery.
What's been the biggest change for you since going from A16 and the San Francisco scene to the Nickel and Denver? Getting reacquainted with Colorado product. Coming into focus with the ranchers and growers of significance in this region. Choosing who I -- we -- do business with. Items that were easily available in San Francisco are a bit more obscure in Denver. In San Francisco, I could go to the farmers' market and hand-pick my persimmons; in Denver, I have to order them three days ahead of time.
What are your favorite cooking techniques, tools and/or equipment? I'm having a lot of fun with our rotisserie and wood-fired grill right now. I love our porchetta on the lunch menu -- crispy, smoky, and so luscious. At A16 we had two wood-fired ovens, and I've always had a strong affinity for foods cooked with fire. Being a certified Neapolitan pizzaiolo, leaning on that background, we're developing a wood-grilled "flatbread" for menu placement that we hope will become a signature item.
Do you have a favorite Colorado ingredient so far? Not a single ingredient, per se, as much as the locally ranched and raised meats. I've been getting some really great farm-raised local hogs from Josh [Curtiss] and Kate [Kavanaugh] at Western Daughters. Getting those broken down, salted and hanging for our charcuterie program has been great. And their air-dried beef is unrivaled. We have been offering choice cuts over the weekends: a bone-in, two-and-a-half-pound rib-eye and a 24-ounce bone-in strip loin, just to name a couple.
What are your current ingredient obsessions? Are there any that you think are overused or that you hate working with? I love pig ears, but not enough for menu placement. I've seen a lot of those around town so far. I'm loving a lot of the Colorado creameries like Broken Shovel and Avalanche. Cheese can never be overused or go out of style.
What's your favorite childhood food memory? Surprisingly enough, Chinese food. There was a great place in North Long Beach, where I grew up, that my dad loved to grab takeout from called Gong's Kitchen. My love for spicy Chinese food started there.
Do you incorporate anything from your early years into your cooking now? My favorite grapes are Concords. My grandparents used to have huge vines in their back yard. I'm always happy to see those each year. We had some Concord-grape jam on our cheese-and-meat plate earlier in the fall.
Overseeing food for an entire hotel must have its unusual moments. What's been the strangest request so far? Chicken quesadillas on a Friday-night dinner rush. Keep in mind we are not a Mexican restaurant, nor do we have any Southwestern influence on our menu. We made it, it was awesome, and the guest said it was the best quesadilla they had ever had. Of course it was.
Have you had much of a chance to check out other Denver restaurants? Any favorites? I've been loving Cart-Driver. I have a serious obsession with wood-fired pizza that cannot be cured by anything but wood-fired pizza. They have great late-night specials. They are open until midnight every night, so it's a perfect after-work industry haunt. Love what the guys at the Populist are doing on a comfy, neighborhood-vibe level. I've also had great meals at Beast + Bottle and Colt & Gray, just to name a couple. Old Major has been consistent. I hope to get out to try more this winter.
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Any guilty pleasures when it comes to food? Soup dumplings...ah, San Francisco. Spicy Chinese food -- spicy, salty anything, really. Still haven't found a favorite [in Denver].