Luke Bergman met Lon Symensma fifteen years ago, when both men were fresh out of culinary school and serving a brief stint at the same Connecticut country club. While they orbited each other a bit in New York City, their professional paths never really intersected again until two and a half years ago, when Bergman came out to Colorado to visit his old friend. Bergman was convinced by Symensma to sign on as sous-chef at ChoLon on the condition that Bergman would eventually oversee his own space. Now that promise has been fulfilled: The pair opened Concourse Restaurant Moderne, with Bergman helming the burners, at Eastbridge Town Center in Stapleton last month.
We recently chatted with Bergman about his macrobiotic-vegan upbringing, how some of New York City’s most prolific chefs coached him to victory in a prestigious global competition, and why he was ready to trade the Big Apple and South Florida for Colorado living.
Luke Bergman: I moved to Fort Lauderdale when I was a year and a half; I was the oldest of two other brothers. My mom studied Japanese and Chinese cuisine and raised us vegan and macrobiotic — I ate a lot of beans, rice and whole grains. My youngest brother has Down syndrome, so my mom was working the whole time. She hired a live-in Jamaican housekeeper who lived with us through the school year, and she was always making curried goat and Jamaican fried fish with pickles. When I was seven, my mom was like, you don’t need to do this macro-vegan thing — you’re at school, kids are influencing you, you’re free to do what you want. So I was exposed at a young age to multiple cuisines and foods I don’t think a lot of kids experience. I went to middle school and high school with a girl whose father owned a local Italian restaurant. She said, “Why don’t you come help and learn how to do rustic Italian dishes?” I really fell in love with it.
I did [an internship in D.C.] for about four months, then went back to school. Right around that time, 9/11 happened, and everyone was slow. America didn’t know what to do. This was right upon graduation. Luckily, chef and instructor Xavier Laroux asked me to be his fellow, his teacher’s assistant. It was great: I paid off my student loans and was working with French again. Halfway through, I needed another summer job, so I got put in touch with another chef at a country club in Greenwich, Connecticut. When I showed up, I was told I’d meet Lon Symensma. He was doing the same thing — trying to pay off student loans and, like me, was off for the summer. He called me up four months later and said, “I’m going to Asia for three months — Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] is sending me — do you want to sublet my apartment in Manhattan?” I thought, why not? I started right away at Aureole and was there for one year, then started seeing all the ads for Danny Meyer taking over the Modern at the Museum of Modern Art. I thought, I have to go there. I knew about Gramercy Tavern and the Union Square Cafe, and I knew I would love to be part of this sort of atmosphere. I went on three interviews and landed the job.
Gabriel Kreuther and Sandro Romano were amazing influences on my career. Getting ready for that competition to go to Paris, I would come in after working six days straight. We were closed Sunday, so I had the whole kitchen to myself. But they’d come in during the fifth hour, and I’d present to them and their friends, like Gavin Kaysen and Daniel Boulud. They’d critique it, and then I’d start to clean up the kitchen, and Gabriel would be like, “Where are you going?” And I’d say, “I’m cleaning up — I have to work tomorrow.” And he’d say, “We have to do it again right now. I’ll be with you.” He was a coach. Without him, I don’t think I’d be there. Marc really helped me on the pastry side. They took me on as their kid. And I won. I’m the only American to win it.
As I was boarding the flight home, Lon called and said, “My sous-chef just gave his notice. Why don’t you join the team?” I said, “Yes, but I want to do something in the future where I can do my own menu and have some ownership.” The opportunity here was incredible. I’d only worked at one Asian restaurant, and Lon knows that cuisine like the back of his hand. We got to do a lot of cool dishes at ChoLon — it was a win-win for both of us. He got to see a style he was really passionate about and see how I integrated it into Southeast Asian in a playful way. For instance, we collaborated on this Colorado lamb rack biryani. We took julienned Yukon Gold potatoes and blanched them in a turmeric stock until they were fluorescent yellow. We’d sous-vide Greek yogurt for two days until we got this dulce de leche — but for yogurt, so it still had a lot of tang. It was a fun take on biryani.
Concourse Restaurant Moderne
10195 East 29th Avenue
Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday