There Chef Ben Knaus on Hospitality, Shotskis and Cold Chicken
Ben Knaus knows what’s There.
Good help is hard to find, and that’s especially true in a booming restaurant scene like Denver’s. But the partners at There, which expanded from Telluride to Denver this spring, are up for the challenge. As head chef Ben Knaus explains, their plan involves “incentivizing seasons of good, steady work in the dreamy Telluride, with a ski pass attached.” The strategy may be unorthodox, but that’s par for the course for this outfit. Everything about There is quirky, from the name (spelled “there…” on the website) to the fact that its partners are as familiar with high-end operations as they are with bars. Listen in as Knaus fleshes out the ethos of There, and find out which foodie icon once went into the kitchen and gave him a pat on the back.
Westword: The original There opened in Telluride five years ago. Why did you decide to expand to Denver, and why now?
Ben Knaus: The decision to expand to Denver was a decision that took us some time to recognize as correct and natural. Yes, Telluride attracts the world traveler, but we came to recognize that we were meeting a good amount of Denver and Boulder guests, and thought it would be great to stay close to the mothership. Keeping our Colorado lifestyle is important to us as well. The cherry comes when we discuss moving staff swiftly between locations whenever in need.... We want to get access to the greatest talents of Denver and then share them with our sister Telluride program.
The bar at There.
Two partners, Andrew Tyler and Oren Cohen, spent a combined seventeen years at Nobu, and Cohen was on the opening team at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market in New York. How did you go from that style of restaurant to this lighthearted concept?
We learned what we liked and disliked about those styles of service. A lot of those influences are still very much with us. We just like turning the music up and pulling guests out of their seats to join us behind the bar for a shotski in front of the entire room. We like smiling with our guests, not at our guests.
It’s not easy to expand and preserve the mojo of the original. What have you to done to carry the vibe to a different space, different city?
We moved here. Literally. Arriving in Denver in April 2015, we almost immediately began searching the town for inspiration and material. We knew we wanted to bring the Telluride spirit with us. The room is very familiar to our Telluride space and town. The bigger consideration was the fear that a number of our family and friends had about the level of [There in] Telluride declining. One of us will eventually be back there to play again in Never-Never Land. Until then, we’ve entrusted the Telluride program to some fine people we love and trust.
The menu seems as conversational as ever, written in cartoon form with text bubbles and headings such as “So You’re Vegan — We Got Ya....” Tell us why you went with this kind of menu design.
To create dialogue. [Being] untraditional creates an opportunity to explore something new. There are neural impulses firing and connecting, creating emotion…. The comic setup on the food menu is quite simple, after the first explanation. The next visit, you’re already a part of our family, and a smile is worn when you start with, “Hi. What are tonight’s Sharables?”
Partner Andrew Tyler once described There as having “no host, no server, no bar back, no busboy. It’s just bar-dish-kitchen.” Yet he also said that hospitality is paramount. How do these two mesh?
An overstaffed room doesn’t guarantee quality hospitality. It’s the people that provide a hospitable experience. Cohen likes to say, “If you’re not hospitable, stay the @$%# out of hospitality.” This is a career built on sincerity. Our lean roster of talent allows us luxuries and opportunities that some of the more traditionally built programs simply do not. We are all about community and client cultivation. Our guys rotate throughout the room, touching each table, connecting with every guest. You’re not going to be seated and then greeted by anyone saying, “Hello, my name is ____. I’ll be your ____ this evening.” The whole room is our section.
Salmon belly tostada, shiitake bun and lettuce wrap.
Where did you work in New York City and Portland, and how did you land at There in Telluride?
I’ve spent the last fourteen years of my life bouncing all over the country, having worked at some of the best restaurants I could find. Where I was going to work next was always my motivation for travel.
I grew up in upstate New York, the heart of the Hudson Valley, and spent some years working for some serious badasses, as well as some great places in New York City and the Hamptons, including Cannibal NYC, Beso in New Paltz, and for chef Kevin Penner in the Hamptons. After working in New York for eleven years, I decided to move to Portland, Oregon, after seeing how it was a very similar but somewhat different style of cooking and farming than that of the Hudson Valley at the time. After a year in Portland, I made my first move in my career that actually wasn’t inspired by cooking. I wanted to ski! I eventually found this little bar on the west end of Telluride that was doing some really cool drinks but needed some help with its food program. Five years later, I made partner.
How long have you been in the business?
Almost fifteen years — half my life. Kind of nuts!
Why did you decide to start cooking?
I got my start like a lot of cooks — as a dishwasher when I got thrown out of high school. The chef had me prepping and looked at me and said, “Hey, you’re pretty good at that. Why don’t you become a chef?” Sigh.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be?
I guess I’d probably still be a dishwasher!
What’s your earliest food memory?
I remember finding my grandmother’s lunch in her office as a little boy and eating the entire container. Cold chicken is pretty much my favorite thing to eat, ever.
What’s a career highlight?
Cooking in Telluride, I got to cook for some pretty cool people. David Byrne ate the entire brunch menu once and said the food was perfect; that was a nice one. Alice Waters came back to the kitchen and gave me a hug and a pat on the back. She’s a really nice lady.
Biggest flop you’ve ever served:
Oh, God, no comment!
Ben Knaus has made his mark.
What’s the thing you’ve worked hardest for in your life, and what did that experience teach you?
I’d say this Denver project has to be up there. We worked very hard in Telluride to get here; now we get to do it all over again. I’ve learned that in this industry, there is always something to do. I think that mindset always keeps my head down, working hard.
Where do you eat on a day off?
What’s a day off?
Definitely my mom and aunt. Those ladies are tough stuff!
Slow down to go faster.
Best tip for a home cook:
Clean as you go. It makes your life so much easier to clean something when it’s still warm.
You are There.
There is located at 3254 Navajo Street. For more information, call 720-500-3254 or go to therebars.com.
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3254 Navajo St.
Denver, Colorado 80211