Last February, fourteen Denver chefs congregated inside the Stranahan's Whiskey distillery as part of a 50top feast, an invite-only, underbelly dinner club that gives chefs the opportunity to cook whatever the hell they want for an appreciative cluster of foodniks who never know what they're going to get. That night, the star of the food chain was a huge vat of cassoulet, a pig-laden trophy that caused the room to erupt in squeals. "Praise the lard!" became the underlying theme.
The cassoulet was the creation of Brian Laird, the executive chef of Barolo Grill, Blair Taylor's iconic Northern Italian restaurant that was recently raked over the coals by Westword restaurant critic Laura Shunk. "Barolo Grill may still have a good reputation," she wrote, "but the reality of dinner there doesn't support it. These days, the star is tarnished. Rather than gracefully aging into a timeless classic, the restaurant by which everything else was once measured is dangerously close to becoming a Hollywood starlet gone to seed, scratching and clawing for a place on the B list."
Whether Barolo Grill takes any notice of what Shunk wrote in her review remains to be seen, but Laird, who has commanded the kitchen there for the past thirteen years, won't be around to find out.
Saturday was his last day behind the burners.
"It's a new decade, and a new year, and after thirteen years, the time has come for me to pursue new opportunities," says Laird, who insists the split was amicable. "I had a great run at Barolo, but I'm really ready for something new and refreshing, and I need to look at what else is out there, which is something I've been thinking about since early last year."
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Laird is heading to Hawaii later this week to spend some time with family and, he says, "to rejuvenate and just chill," and when he gets back to Denver, he'll explore a few irons that's he's already got in the fire. "There's a lot of stress that's been lifted from my shoulders, but I haven't seen my family in a long time, and I need to relax for a bit, but I've got a few opportunities that I'm looking at, one of which is really, really cool," explains Laird.
"This is a new chapter of my life, and I'm looking forward to all the possibilities that lie ahead," he says. "I'm ready to make a change, and I'm excited about being freed up to participate in community-related culinary events in Denver, like the Denver FIVE, and, for the first time in a long time, now I get to do what I want, which is great way to start the new year."
Whatever project Laird is working on, I just hope it involves cassoulet.