Lucas Chandler isn't the kind of chef who started out as a pre-teen kitchen rat scrubbing pots at his uncles's Italian joint for less than minimum wage or stirring the sauce for his grandmother before Sunday family meals. But by high school was working in restaurants and then went on to earn a bachelor's degree in culinary nutrition from Johnson & Wales. Now chef de cuisine at the French-inspired Coohills overlooking Cherry Creek downtown, Chandler embraces butter as a key ingredient, even if his background is rooted in nutrition and feeding athletes.
His passion for food was initially inspired by the nutritional needs of his cycling friends, so early jobs included catering mountain-biking events in Moab. After college, he interned in Steamboat Springs and then moved to Denver, where he worked the line at Mirepoix, Adega and Table 6. He also landed an internship with Carmichael Training Systems, where he worked with Lance Armstrong's coach and team dietitians to develop training diets for athletes.
That internship lead to a job as personal chef for Carmelo Anthony during the time that the then-Denver Nugget was helping the U.S. men's basketball team win an Olympic gold medal in 2008. Chandler says that Anthony was traveling a great deal during that time, so cooking duties weren't terribly rigorous. "You're not just a chef for someone like that, though," he explains, adding that answering the phone, running errands and doing other household tasks was just part of the job.
Since then, Chandler spent the better part of his career at Il Posto, where he was initially hired as the pastry chef but almost immediately moved to the burners. "On one of my first days there, a line cook didn't show up," he recalls. He left his position as chef de cuisine there in 2013 to pursue some personal cooking goals, but didn't stay out of the Denver restaurant scene long. After a brief stint at Cafe|Bar in 2014, he's now settling into his position at Coohills, which includes planning for banquets, weddings and other catered events — which are a major part of chef/co-owner Tom Coohill's agenda. Tonight, the crew is throwing a New Year's Eve bash with a faithful reproduction of the last first-class dinner served on the RMS Titanic.
We talked to Chandler about hiring some of his former Il Posto colleagues, his kitchen favorites and what he does in his spare time:
Westword: What five words describe your style as a chef?
Lucas Chandler: Creative, stubborn, driven, laid back, forward thinking
Now that you've made the jump from Italian to French cooking, do you have any new favorite techniques or dishes?
After years of using little to no butter, it has been a fun change to start incorporating it into dishes
What ingredients and kitchen tools are absolute necessities for you?
Olive oil and nice vinegar. For kitchen tools, I love having a Vitamix and liquid nitrogen around.
Any kitchen disasters or fun stories you'd like to share?
At this point all the disasters and crazy stories that happen are starting to run together. The one that stick outs the most is the New Year’s Eve maybe six years ago we tried to run two very ambitious ten-course tasting menus at the same time and failed rather unglamorously, to say the least. To date, that was one of the more rememberable lessons in the importance of restraint in regards to food I’ve had.
You've worked with pastry chef Natalia Spampinato at Il Posto and brought her on at Coohills. What do you like about what she does?
She has more natural talent than anyone you will ever meet in this industry, but still chooses to remain humble and dedicated to her craft.
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Where do you like to eat when you're not working — both high-end and cheap?
For higher end food around town I’m a big fan of sushi. The guys at Mercantile and beast and bottle are also doing some delicious food. For cheap and quick, Chipotle really does a consistently good job in my opinion.
Do you cook much at home? What would we find in your refrigerator?
I don’t mind cooking at home, but rarely do it unless it is for someone. The only thing currently in my refrigerator is noosa yogurt, flax seeds, and a bottle of Taittinger.
What do you like to do for fun or relaxation on your days off?
Ive never been great at relaxing and for the most part it stresses me out. I try to spend most of my days off training on my bike or trail running through the mountains.
What's your fondest childhood food memory?
Food never had a huge influence in my childhood and I didn’t start to even care about it till high school, but looking back my dad is a great cook which had to of planted some sort of seed for me early on.