A Noble Bird

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Oddly enough, the chicken he really wants to cook is the chicken served at Ya Hala and at hundreds of places like Ya Hala in marginal neighborhoods all around the world, chicken given the most spare peasant preparation imaginable. Chicken cooked this way speaks to a deep meme in cultures where the slaughter of any animal was (and is) seen as a cause for great celebration. A chicken is an animal as noble as any and more so than some (like, say, Lindsay Lohan), and to see it respected in such a way -- neither gussied up nor dumbed down, tortured or fucked with unnecessarily -- is why so many of us cooks, present and former, could learn a lot by watching and tasting what goes on in the neighborhoods of our immigrant brothers-in-arms.

Food free-for-all: Finally, something good coming out of a cooking school! I was talking to Brad Birky who, along with his wife, Libby, just opened the SAME Cafe at 2023 East Colfax Avenue on October 20. And during the course of our conversation, Brad revealed that "other than a couple years of fast food in high school," he'd never worked in the restaurant industry before. But after some courses in cooking and restaurant management at Metro State, he thought he was ready.

"I know," he told me. "The things you learn in books and class are no substitute for experience like working on the line, but we did what we could."

So why am I suddenly lauding this kind of bootstrap, up-from-nothing, schoolboy hubris? Why am I not tearing both Brad and Libby new pieholes for being so presumptuous as to think that a couple of classes, some history of burger-flipping, and simple desire are enough to sustain them in this business? I've certainly taken the verbal cat-o-nine to others for less.

Because the Birkys have two rather interesting things going for them. First, they do have some experience: They've been working for the past four years as volunteers at the Catholic Worker House, a transitional facility for people coming off a bad jag of homelessness or worse. One day a week, Brad and Libby helped prepare meals for the residents. They wrote menus, they cooked, they served -- and when that was all done, they sat down and ate with the people they were feeding. "We liked the feeling of being able to do that for people," Brad said. And the idea for the restaurant grew out of that spirit.

Which leads me to the second interesting thing: All the food at SAME is free.

Okay, not free, exactly. But there are no prices on the menu, and there's no cash register in the place, just a donation box by the front door where money is taken. "The idea is that if you're down on your luck, just pay what you can," the Birkys advise. "If your luck is on the upswing, you have the opportunity -- not obligation -- to help out others [by paying a little more]."

Seem a bit strange? Just friggin' bonkers? Maybe, but this idea has worked in other places. In Florida, I used to frequent a Cuban lunch counter where the waitresses, under orders from the owner, would feed the immigrant workers for whatever they were able to pay. In Salt Lake City, the One World Cafe, owned and operated by acupuncturist-turned-cook Denise Cerreta, does the same. The Birkys visited One World, trying to determine how a restaurant could survive so long under the pay-what-you-can philosophy. And now here in Denver, we have SAME -- which stands for So All May Eat, also the name of the Birkys' pending non-profit organization. At SAME, the ever-changing menu runs from white chili and squash soup to brie-cranberry-and-chicken pizzas, curried rice salad, blueberry cobbler and pan bagnat.

And even though the restaurant had only been up and running for about a week when I talked to Brad (not counting dry runs and friends-and-family dinners), he was already seeing some surprisingly decent numbers. "So far, we've been averaging about $9.50 to $10 per person," he said, and moving between ten and thirty people through the dining room, five days a week. Granted, that's not much -- but it's a start. And with just two of them doing all the work -- prepping, cooking, taking orders, serving, doing the dishes and cleaning up -- I'm not sure how much more the Birkys could handle.

"We wanted to be able to make a good, healthy meal available for everyone," Brad explained, "not just for people with a lot of money. Anyone can come here and eat."

Leftovers: Over at 1313 East Sixth Avenue, Fruition is making the final arrangements to take over Somethin' Else, and chef Sean Kelly is making his final arrangements for handing over the keys. Meanwhile, a few blocks away at 609 Corona Street, owner Mike Huff almost sold the Table 6 space to Frank Bonanno (chef/owner of Luca d'Italia and Mizuna, where the new owners of Fruition -- Paul Attardi and Alex Seidel -- used to work).

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan