When Ryan Witcher set out on the increasingly well-beaten path that leads from the coasts to Colorado, he did so for the same reasons that I’m here, and maybe why you’re here, too: work and quality of life. “The offer to partner with one of the best chefs in one of the best cities in the U.S. was one I couldn’t turn down,” says Witcher, who left New York’s Tavern on the Green to take over as Troy Guard’s chef/partner at Sugarmill. Since his arrival, Witcher has lost no time putting his stamp on the restaurant. Find out what he’s already done and what else is in store — beyond stand-out sweets, of course — in the conversation that follows.
Westword: What led you to this position?
Ryan Witcher: I had been consulting with Troy on the TAG restaurant pastry program for some time and was using him as a sounding board as I developed my business plan for a high-end cake shop I’d been working on. When chef Troy approached me about buying into Sugarmill, it was a no-brainer. I have a lot of respect and admiration for [him]…. Denver is a great place to settle down and create a home with my new family: my wife, Robyn, and two sons, Eisol and Eaden. For years I’d been thinking about relocating to Colorado or Seattle, and now I could not be happier with my choice.
Despite the name, which makes Sugarmill sound like a dessert bar, dinner has been a big part of the concept from the beginning. Will happy hour/dinner continue to be a focus?
While we will always have a happy hour — the neighborhood demands it — our breakfast, lunch, dinner and especially brunch will continue to be a focus. We want to be a great neighborhood spot with great food and desserts for all times of the day and night.
What changes do you have in store for the menu?
The menu has already undergone some significant changes in the short time since I came on board, including adding some of my favorite international flavors. For example, there’s a Korean BBQ pulled-pork sandwich that includes a Korean BBQ sauce and my white kimchi. I’ve also added a decadent pastrami hash, made with house-cured pastrami and duck-fat potatoes, and a comfort-food grilled cheese sandwich that’s built with Wisconsin white cheddar, Applewood-smoked bacon and heirloom tomatoes. I serve that with a creamy sweet tomato soup that you must dip the sandwich in — I insist. Going forward, as the seasons change and new produce comes in, we will adapt and change the menu to feature delicious dishes that reflect the season and my international experience with fun and unusual flavors and texture profiles. Soon, we’re planning to launch dinners to go, designed so you just have to heat the full meal up in the comfort of your own home. We’re also ramping up the pastry program with a focus on custom cakes, wholesale orders and expanded desserts to complete your meal here or grab-n-go for home.
What’s your culinary philosophy? Some pastry chefs skew sweet, while others are more savory.
My culinary philosophy is to highlight a particular ingredient. Too many chefs put so many components into a dish that you sometimes get lost and can’t even tell what you are eating. I like clean, refined flavors that shine, and I definitely love encompassing savory into my desserts. It balances the flavors and adds more depth to the dish.
Why did you decide to start a career in pastry?
I started early — at sixteen — washing dishes to pay for my first car and insurance. I saw how much fun the cooks on the line were having and the reactions the guests had when they were eating the food, and that drew me in. I worked on the savory side for the first few years, and when I had an opportunity to switch to pastry, I tried it and I loved it. With pastry, you can be artistic in a different way — and, of course, dessert is the last course for the guest. I was drawn by the thought of creating that last “wow” experience.
If you hadn’t become a chef, what would you be?
An elementary-school teacher. In fact, I was working on my teaching degree and student teaching in Seattle when I made the decision to return to the culinary world and concentrate fully on pastries.
What’s your earliest food memory?
Picking out sprinkles for my ice cream scoop at my grandparents’ house. They had over forty different choices, and I remember it always being a hard decision!
How long have you been in the business?
I started early, so it’s been nineteen years. Wow, I just felt really old saying that.
Quick bio: How old are you, where are you from, and what are your career highlights?
I’m 34, and I was born in Michigan. Career highlights include opening the Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York City, being the executive pastry chef at multiple Ritz-Carlton hotels, and being the opening executive pastry chef at Four Seasons Seattle. My biggest project until now was as executive pastry chef at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.
You bring a great combination of kitchen and pastry experience to Sugarmill. What is it that makes both appeal to you?
For me, it’s the endless options of flavor combinations. I believe the whole meal should be great, not just one or two courses.
You’ve worked in some spectacular places, from New York’s Restaurant Daniel to Singapore to Anguilla. How have those global flavors made their way into your fare?
In Singapore, I was in charge of the entire pastry operation for Marina Bay Sands that included SweetSpot, the resort’s high-end cake shop. In Anguilla, I was the executive pastry chef at the Viceroy Hotel. Living in all of those places for so many years, I was exposed to endless unusual and unexpected flavors, textures and cultures. You can find a little bit of every place I have lived in the menu.
What kind of volume did you do at Tavern on the Green? By comparison, Sugarmill is tiny. How does that transition feel?
The volume was insane at Tavern on the Green. The biggest brunch service I ran was 1,400 covers, which is crazy. Sugarmill is definitely smaller and cozier, but I have no problem keeping myself busy, especially because being part owner of Sugarmill means that I have an even broader scope of responsibilities.
Do you have a mentor? What was the best advice you received?
I’m lucky that I can count a lot of chefs and people I have met along the way as mentors. I believe you can learn something from everyone, including the stewards. Actually, my biggest mentor in the pastry world was Tony Miller, my executive pastry chef at the Mandarin Oriental in New York City; currently, he has his own pastry shop, called Amour Patisserie, in California. He taught me a lot about the world of pastry technique.
Do you have a signature dish?
I have a few that I love that have had staying power over the years. Roasted-beet baked Alaska is a chocolate tart with candied beets, roasted-beet ice cream and toasted basil meringue. Orange & Thyme is a white chocolate-thyme mousse with Satsuma-orange crème and hazelnut dacquoise. And strawberry-basil shortcake has lemon madeleines, fresh bay leaf whipped ganache, and a strawberry-basil compote.
If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Spaghetti Bolognese, hands down!
Do you think sugar is overused in desserts? Has sweet become a crutch?
Yes. Sugar is very much overused. Most pastry chefs put so much sugar into the dessert that it’s hard to taste the main ingredient. If the fruit you are trying to make a dessert with needs a lot of sugar, chances are that it is not ripe, and you shouldn’t be using it in the first place.
In the U.S., dessert menus often fall into a boring routine: Key lime pie, molten chocolate cake, ice cream, bread pudding. What desserts should replace those?
That’s a tough one, because anything after a while tends to produce some level of boredom. I would replace those standards with anything that uses fresh, seasonal ingredients — crisps, cobblers, etc. — especially with produce!
What book is on your bedside table right now?
Setting the Table, by Danny Meyer.
“You’re only as good as the last dish you put out.”
Any question you wish I’d asked you?
“Biggest kitchen disaster?” My biggest kitchen disaster was the first — and only — time I didn’t check the temper before I dipped 600 fortune cookies for an event that evening. Everything started off fine, but when I reheated the chocolate, I didn’t check it, and proceeded to dip the homemade fortune cookies with, of course, personalized messages inside. I don’t think I have ever remade fortune cookies that fast. The whole pastry team pitched in to get it done in time. I learned my lesson, though, and am now a fanatic about checking my tempering.
Sugarmill is located at 2461 Larimer Street. For more information, call 303-297-3540 or go to sugarmilldesserts.com.