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.
The chefs, both rookies and veterans, past participants and new blood, move around the room, stopping to joke with each other and fifty guests, most of whom are experiencing their first 50top dinner. There are rules for both chefs and guests. "We ask guests to bring their own place settings, leave their cell phones behind, take pictures, put aside their crap, don't complain, have fun and, once they've left — hopefully happy, drunk and full — to spread the word about Denver restaurants," says Fader.
Chefs are asked not to don any kitchen garb. "No coats, no clogs and no chef pants are allowed," insists Fader. "All the other events we do are about us — we have to wear our chef's jackets — but when we do 50top, it's about continuing to build a food-driven community and ensuring that Denver never loses its cowtown charm. It's about throwing down, geeking out and cooking and talking about food. There really isn't a lot of separation between the chefs and the guests. It's a bit like the school dance, where the boys are on one side, the girls on the other, and eventually all the uncomfortableness melts away."
Fader thinks there needs to be more accountability — and more conversations — between chefs and the public, especially, in light of the numerous street-journalism sites where just about anyone can comment on or review a restaurant. "I want to make it very clear that I don't want to exclude anyone, but while I'm all for people broadcasting their opinions on websites like Yelp, for example, a lot of those people are completely uninformed and misguided and honestly don't know what they're talking about," Fader says. "That's one reason why it's so important to have a venue where we can chat with people and where there's one-on-one contact with the same chefs that some of these people are talking about. We want that open discourse."
But make no mistake: These dinners aren't for everyone. There's a significant degree of trust that has to go along with the clandestine magic that unfurls when a mob of badass chefs have control over your dinner. This is not a restaurant; it's not the place to be picky. So if the thought of eating pig's ears frightens you, proceed directly to the exit sign and don't pass Fader on your way out the door. If you're anti-social and the mere thought of sitting with complete strangers makes you reach for your Xanax, go back to your couch. If you routinely read health-department inspection reports and believe that a restaurant that leaves its salt and pepper shakers in the sink should be seized and burned to the ground, then you may as well dig your own grave.
It's nearly 7 p.m. by the time Fader grabs the bullhorn and shouts, "Sit your ass down!" A couple who brought an entire picnic basket filled with just about everything but their kitchen cabinets are admiring their setup. Another couple has brought pie tins as their dinner trays. One woman has busted out her grandmother's china. All the plates are soon loaded: The chefs have cooked enough food for fifty caravans of gypsies, all served family style. The menu is longer than the Declaration of Independence. There are deviled eggs, crispy pig-trotter terrine and foie gras hot dogs from Steuben's (Biederman); Szechuan spiced duck confit with fingerling potatoes from TAG (Guard); Parmesan gnocchi with lamb-shoulder ragout and Brussels sprouts with cherries, pecans, bacon and lavender yogurt from Vesta (Selby) and Venue (Rugile); crispy pig's ears drizzled with Steuben's housemade hot sauce and buttermilk-fried rabbit saddles and leg of rabbit stew from Tambien (Yontz); and the star of the show, a vat of cassoulet from Laird (Barolo Grill) that's the size of a small Winnebago. As the cart comes careening around our corner of the table, the sight of pig, pig and more pig turns into a religious epiphany for at least one person, who clasps her hands together and squeals, "Praise the lard!"
Suddenly a booming voice silences her squeal — and this time it's not Fader's. Former Denver restaurateur and mad Englishman Mel Master is in the house. Master, who left Denver for the East Coast last year after decades of commanding one of the best restaurant runs this city has ever seen, has a few words of his own for the chefs, some of whom once worked in the kitchen at Mel's Bar and Grill, the Cherry Creek restaurant that Mel and his wife, Janie, turned into a beloved classic. "These extraordinary chefs are here for no gain whatsoever," says Master. "They're sending a message that I hope we can spread through whatever means possible — even Facebook, whatever that is — a message that friendship, food and wine is what makes us happy when things are fucked up."
It's an extraordinary dinner on every level, and the chefs know it. "These dinners totally rule," says Selby, who can barely contain his enthusiasm. "They keep us all cracking jokes, and they're such a great way to say thank you to our customers, the people who support us and force us to always do better."
Fader, on his third or fourth speech of the night, echoes Selby's sentiments: "Without all of you, our restaurants couldn't survive and thrive." He goes on to endearingly call his ring a "band of miscreants that always comes together to meet challenges."
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One of which is to now abolish the secrecy. "We didn't have our shit together in the beginning and we didn't want to be embarrassed, so we kept things quiet. It's kind of like building a treehouse," says Fader. "As you continue to build it and it keeps taking shape and looking better, you want more people to experience it. That's the point where we're at now."
From the start of 50top, each of the chefs was allowed to invite four people to the dinner, and, Fader says, "there's a ton of banter via e-mail to discuss the invitation list." But now the process is changing: The guests will have the decision-making power. To that end, each person invited to the Stranahan's dinner adds a name to the e-mail invite list. From here on out, Fader explains, each 50top group will be expected to create the next contingent of fifty.
"I know we'll get a few ding-dongs, but I really believe that we'll also get the people who are unbelievably passionate about food," says Fader. "Our ultimate goal is to create longevity, camaraderie and collectivity with anyone and everyone who cares about food. As long as you come here with the right attitude and for all the right reasons, everyone is welcome."