"Seriously, you left Strings for this?"

We were sitting at the bar at Yia Yia's Euro Cafe (8310 East Belleview Avenue in Greenwood Village), Aaron Whitcomb's newest place of employment, when the words just kinda tumbled from my mouth -- in part, I suspect, because I had just eaten lunch at Yia Yia's. And it wasn't good. In fact, my shrimp risotto sucked, which is exactly what I told Whitcomb right before learning that he'd been observing his latest kitchen for all of two days.

I realize it's only March, with far more restaurant shocks and surprises in the pipes, but when word hit the streets that Whitcomb, the former exec chef at Strings (1700 Humboldt Street) and before that, Table 6 and Adega, had left Noel Cunningham's uptown restaurant for a south suburban corporate chain, I sputtered and choked.

But not Whitcomb, who admits to being happier than he's been in quite a while. "Strings was tough," he said. "Noel told me that he'd give me carte blanche, but it didn't work out that way. It really wasn't that difficult to leave."

Aaron Whitcomb goes south to Yia Yia's Euro Cafe

Easier still, said Whitcomb, because his good friend and Yia Yia's general manager Scott Hornick, a former part-time sommelier at Del Frisco's, came calling. "He offered me the opportunity to take Yia Yia's over and revamp it -- the front of the house, the kitchen, the whole restaurant."

The bump in salary didn't hurt, either. "Frankly, I was offered a big pay increase that was too hard to resist. I've got a family to support, it's a down economy, I like to make money and I wanted to make more money," Whitcomb explained.

"I was proud of the food I was putting out at Strings, and I had a tremendous amount of respect for the staff," he continued, "but it was very difficult to get any respect from a younger clientele, and Noel was only going to promote progressive and adventurous food so far. I wanted to push it further and that just wasn't going to happen there, but I have the opportunity to do that here while working with a ton of very talented and motivated people."

Whitcomb, who dabbled in molecular gastronomy at Chicago's Alinea before moving back to Denver and taking the gig at Strings, plans to continue that streak at Yia Yia's. "We're definitely going to keep a few of the classics on the menu, but we want to significantly raise our standards by focusing on local ingredients and the techniques I learned at Alinea. People will absolutely see elements of molecular gastronomy. That's my playground."

And Whitcomb isn't wasting any time; he's rolling out a new spring menu this month. "When I got this job," he explained, "the owners told me that when you have talent, you run with it, and that's exactly what I'm going to do. I want this restaurant to be crazy good and crazy busy; we're not okay with mediocre."

Jason Sheehan talked with Noel Cunningham about the Strings chef switch at the bottom of his his March 12 Bite Me column; click here to read the interview.

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