Yesterday, while sharing space at the bar with Jensen Cummings, the executive chef of Row 14, he couldn't wipe the grin off his face. "This is going to be a big, very cool party, and you know why it's going to be big and cool?" he asked. "We're one of only seven restaurants in the country -- and the only restaurant in Colorado -- that has a nitrogen-fed tap of Fernet, and everyone in this industry drinks Fernet."
And everyone who works in the restaurant business, he hopes, will be there tonight to drink a toast to Row 14, which is celebrating its one-year anniversary with a blowout bash. "We're excited about what we've done here, and we want to share that with our industry friends -- the people who support us and whose restaurants we eat at," says Cummings, who, along with his staff, plan to ply the thirsty with shots of Fernet and satiate the hungry with complimentary food. "We're doing lots of munchies -- things like sandwiches with breakfast bratwurst, a fried egg, egg salad and ranch dressing, and some arugula to make it classy," he jokes. In addition, the kitchen will send out alligator sloppy joes with grilled onions and burnt cheese, roasted frog legs with chile, and, reveals Cummings, "melt-your-face-off-hot chicken wings soaked in our housemade hot sauce."
But the party, notes Cummings, is also about his own recognition of the journey he's experienced since coming on board as Row 14's chef, a move that transpired after he left the kitchen at TAG last year when TAG owner Troy Guard and his now ex-wife, Leigh Sullivan, went their separate ways. "It's definitely been a growing process" he admits. "Taking over a restaurant is difficult, because there's so much culture -- defined and undefined -- that you have to wade through, and it's difficult to incorporate change without overwhelming the staff and guests."
But Cummings is comfortable in his own skin -- and in his kitchen. "We slowly changed the synergy of the restaurant, and I'm a leader and like to inspire people, and I'm a better chef now than I was at TAG, because there's no wiggle room," he admits, adding, too, that he's a "coach, therapist and cheerleader," all of which, he says, "I try to embody."
And now that Cummings is firmly entrenched in the culture of Row 14, he has big plans for its future, including a few minor alterations to the space and the introduction of a "We Care about Dirt" campaign. "It's about educating the whole staff about where our food and wine comes from -- the very grassroots of it all, pun intended," he says. "It's about utilizing Colorado products and wines all the way down to the dirt, and when you come into Row 14, you'll definitely see dirt -- in a good way."
Cummings notes, too, that since his arrival at Row 14, the overall philosophy has changed. "We have a great culture now, and that kind of culture attracts like-minded people," he explains, noting that the restaurant's vision -- "thoughtful, approachable and playful -- has made it so that we have aces in their places when it comes to the staff."
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It took, he admits, months to get to this point, but the effort, he insists, was worth it. "We know who we are, who we want to be and we're really going to be steadfast in that," stresses Cummings. "I may give my staff migraine headaches because of my unrelenting pressure to improve, but they all know that it comes from a good place and that it's for the betterment of our futures, so they put up with me."
He notes, too, that the clientele has changed since Row 14's opening days. "When I got here, the chicken potpie was the best-seller, and now rabbit outsells chicken," and that, he asserts "was the sigh, the a-ha moment where I knew that we had earned the trust of our guests -- that they were behind what we're doing here."
You can all raise a shot of Fernet to the success of Row 14 starting at 10 p.m. tonight. And don't worry if you're late: The soiree will continue until 2 a.m.