Tea and Sympathy

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And even though it closed in 1987, innocent victim of a corporate sellout, people who had a connection to the place are always trying to go back.

"They come up all the time," says Collins. "Guys who worked the elevators, guys who ran the boiler room. And the week of Father's Day, for a surprise, a woman brought in her father, a guy in his nineties who'd done all the herringbone brick work. He said he was fourteen at the time, the youngest journeyman bricklayer ever. He remembered everything."

"I closed the doors on the place in 1987," recalls Fred Batchelor, the Tea Room's last executive chef. "It was very sad."

Fred Batchelor hasn't been back--yet--but he doesn't need to see the space to remember poking around the Tea Room's kitchen, struggling with a temperamental, outdated grill. (He had to tilt the flambe dishes to get them to ignite.) The recipes he encountered on his first day in 1984 had been written decades earlier and often carried admonitions such as: "ALWAYS FOLLOW THIS PROCEDURE, ALWAYS!" The ice-cream sundaes were to be made with the aforementioned three-and-a-half scoops. The tea must be Earl Grey.

Batchelor had arrived in Denver in the early Eighties, fresh from various culinary courses and Italian restaurants in and around Buffalo, New York. "I wanted so much to see what was going on on the other side of the country," he recalls. "I figured they ate food in Denver, too, and I would be all right."

He was, but he was also busy--working two jobs to pay his tuition at the University of Denver hotel-management school. Eventually he dropped out of college and rose through the ranks at the Normandy French Restaurant, all the while working 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. as the Tea Room saucier.

"There were thirty waitstaff, eight cooks and fifteen utility people, busboys and such, and they had all been there forever," he recalls. "In the three years I was there I can only think of two people who left. One guy had been there thirty-three years, one waitress twenty-five."

But this old boy's (and girl's) network embraced Batchelor almost immediately, recommending him for the executive-chef position even as the food-service manager was conducting a nationwide search. Once Batchelor got the job, the pressure was on--not just to handle the crowds (lunches routinely involved three shifts of 400 customers, with a line waiting out the door)--but to keep everything the same, the way those crowds wanted it.

"Oh, yes," he remembers, "the little cut-out chicken pastry HAD to go on top of the chicken à la king--it had been that way forever. We did navy bean soup every Tuesday, lemon meringue pie every Friday. The pecan chicken salad...the blue-plate special, always served on actual blue plates. In the afternoons we served an array of tea sandwiches, crusts cut off, with cucumbers or watercress, which is what the ladies liked."

Although he eventually sectioned off a portion of the room into a thirty-seat cafe where he could serve more adventurous meals, Batchelor adapted to the Tea Room traditions with good grace. "Well," he says modestly, "they said, 'Fred, this is how we do it,' and I listened."

Soon the routine was as comforting as the menu. In the mornings, Bachelor traveled up and down the length of the kitchen, tasting more than twenty staple dishes with a long-handled ice tea spoon. In the afternoons, he ran three miles to work off the stress of keeping the Tea Room's standards high.

But there were rewards. Every Valentine's Day, the entire staff received cards from one of the utility workers, who, like many of the room's workers, had Down's syndrome. "And they were the most dependable employees I'd ever had," he says.

"Oh, and the ladies," Batchelor adds, remembering the legion of older women who ran his chicken salads and bread puddings out to the customers. "They were in their sixties, at least, and the greatest bunch of ladies, serious professionals. The people I've worked with since, it's an I thing, it's a Me thing, but those old women really worked together as a group. I miss the way they took care of the customers, and I miss the way they took care of me."

In the Tea Room's last month, the place was full of "women in white gloves who flew in from Kansas to show their daughters where they used to shop and eat with Mom," Batchelor remembers. "The TV cameras were rolling almost every day, and we got up to 1500 at lunch."

After that the May Company, which bought out the Denver, Tea Room and all, offered Batchelor his choice of similar jobs in Pittsburgh--"No thanks," he thought--or California. And Martin Marietta came through with another attractive deal. But Batchelor had gotten used to cooking for his "senior clientele," and instead decided to sign on with the Springwood Retirement Community in Arvada, where he has been, with one small break, ever since.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff

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