At 5:15 p.m. on a chilly Thursday, Jamey Fader, clad in black, with a plaid cap pulled low over his forehead, is balancing on a box in the corner of a back-alley warehouse. "Welcome to whatever the fuck this is," he deadpans. It's Fader's first impromptu speech of the night, the one where he makes it clear that if you aren't here to have a good time, you've come to the wrong party. "The idea is to have fun. Tonight we get to leave behind the grease traps, the three dishwashers that didn't show up at our restaurants and the server who's probably getting knocked up in the bathroom...as I speak."
They laugh at this, the twenty or thirty restaurant-industry men and women who have ditched their regular gigs, at least for tonight, to go underground. Fourteen of them are chefs: Fader, Matt Selby, Goose Sorensen, James Rugile, Scott Parker, Brian Laird, Sean Yontz, Brandon Biederman, Wade Kirwan, John "Haji" Hinman, Troy Guard, Pete Marczyk, Cory Treadway and Aniedra Nichols. Fader finishes his preamble by reminding his collaborators that they're not on their own turf. "Let us not forget that we're in someone else's business," he warns them. "Respect that and don't fuck with it."
Fader, the executive chef of the seven restaurants canopied under Dave Query's Big Red F Restaurant Group, including Lola, Centro Latin Kitchen and Jax Denver and Boulder, is the chief conspirator of 50top, an in-the-know, invite-only, underbelly dinner club that unfolds in various locations throughout the city, everywhere from historic landmarks and stately old homes to a whiskey distillery with a shotgun pee pot. Anywhere except at a routine restaurant.
The idea for 50top originated with Fader and Haji, a former kitchen manager/sous at Vesta Dipping Grill, previous sous at Jax and Lola, former owner of Nosh Gelato and current pastry god at Marczyk Fine Foods, the gourmet market owned by Marczyk and his wife, Barbara Macfarlane. "At the same time I was thinking about finding a non-restaurant property to hold small community dinners — something like the James Beard House — Haji was interested in putting together something like the Outstanding in the Field dinners," intimate earth-to-plate gatherings that bring together local farmers, winemakers, chefs and foodniks. "But then I started thinking about my legacy," Fader continues, "and I kept asking myself if I wanted to be remembered simply as a chef of a restaurant, or as someone who fostered a sense of community for food geeks and continually tried to increase awareness of Denver's restaurants."
He decided he wanted to increase awareness — and at first, the sky was the limit. "Originally, we wanted to do roving dinners at iconic sites, like on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol; we wanted to create a crazy-great website, and we envisioned national chefs flying out to cook with us," Fader says. "Hell, we even thought about asking the mayor or the governor to host a dinner. And we wanted to charge people."
While they made their grandiose plans, Fader and Haji sought the advice of people they trusted — friends like Marczyk and Macfarlane; Selby, exec of Vesta Dipping Grill and Steuben's; and Vesta/Steuben's owner Josh Wolkon, who gave Fader plenty of food for thought. "Josh told us to stop trying to brand it, always make it free for guests, and to just let it all happen organically, which was some of the best advice we got, so we followed it," says Fader.
"The beauty of these dinners is that they all come together somehow, and right now that's a miracle, because I'm so fucking brain dead," Fader tells me while eyeballing the warehouse space that's the setting for the fourth 50top feast. He strolls over to Sean Kenyon, the bar manager of Steuben's, whose contribution is a spectacular Schuylkill Fish House punch, a recipe plucked from an 1800s hunting and fishing lodge that fits beautifully into the fabric of the evening's theme: whiskey, farm and country. As if to drive the point home, Sorensen, chef/owner of Solera Restaurant and Wine Bar, has even brought his own cock, a kaleidoscopic chanticleer that normally sits on a shelf, right by the front door, in his restaurant. Sorensen, who's been a part of the 50top chef cartel from the beginning, sucks on his beer. "There's nothing better than getting together with all these yahoos, hanging out with cool people that share our passion for food, drinking a beer and smoking a one-hitter," he says. Five minutes later, he's out blowing puffy clouds in the alley.
The location of tonight's dinner, which was kept on the down-low until the invites were e-mailed, is the Stranahan's Whiskey distillery, which lends itself to the "stiff drinking punch that this crowd won't have any trouble downing," Kenyon quips. In less than an hour, the concrete space, which holds little more than whiskey barrels and a makeshift office with a rickety desk, chair and cot, has been transformed into an ad hoc kitchen, bar and determinedly unconventional roost. Plastic tables are lined up like dominos, their tops sheeted with vinyl tablecloths. At just after 6 p.m., the guests start to trickle in.