The bar where I was meeting my chefs before the show was packed. The hearth-fire lighting glowed in prisms of condensation on the windows; jackets and scarves were hanging on hooks and draped over chairs. The five of us squeezed around the corner of the wide, hickory-topped bar, aged and oiled by elbows and worn smooth with conversation. I ordered my October-through-January standard: ten ounces of the Great Divide's Hibernation Ale pulled off the tap and a shot of Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey with two ice cubes. In Denver our air is thin, but our intoxicants are not. We have a culture of strong beer and strong whiskey, and I am extremely fortunate to be able to imbibe the creations of people I know and respect. This connection makes the love and appreciation of the drink that much deeper — and the buzz that much warmer. People continued to flow into the bar, blowing on their hands, stomping the snow off their shoes, looking for a place to sit. Like I said, the bar was packed, standing room only. I was happy with this, because it was my bar.
Going to the show was not my idea. Sure, I'd heard of the guy, but I wasn't really familiar with him, had never read his books, never seen his TV program. But my chefs were unanimous in their desire to see him. "Why pay seventy dollars a ticket to see a guy talk about what we do every day?" I asked. They remained unified, though, so I acquiesced and ordered tickets the same way 90 percent of people order wine: I looked at the cheapest and most expensive offerings and chose something right in the middle. The balcony.
The crowd outside the Buell was younger and more stylish than I expected, which lifted my hopes — until I found out they were going to see Ray LaMontagne in the theater next door. "Are you guys sure you'd rather not see Ray?" I asked, trying to push a last-minute agenda. But my chefs are savvy to my tricks and held fast to the original plan.
The crowd inside the Buell looked as if they'd spent some quality time on the couch. I think I saw Jason Sheehan, Westword's meat-toothed restaurant critic, all shifty-eyed, lurking in the corner, wearing a black trench coat and a fan boy T-shirt, doing some serious mouth-breathing.
Grabbing another round of drinks, my crew and I headed for our seats. I don't think there is an American alive who can sit in a balcony and not look around for John Wilkes Booth. We joked, did a few assassination reenactments, started talking about Kennedy and vampires. Texts starting arriving from friends who'd scoped us from seats below and invariably made reference to Lincoln. We gave them delicate rodeo-queen waves and settled in.
John Hickenlooper, the mayor of Denver, who's steeped in restaurant cred, introduced "Tony," the best-selling author of tell-all restaurant industry books, and presented him with a beer to the city, a well-selected Great Divide Titan IPA.
Tony started out by admitting that the scene in little ol' Denver doesn't suck as bad as it used to, and then, casually sipping his beer, revealed, "I don't prepare for these engagements."
Damn, really? Seventy bucks a ticket to see this dude wing it? I strained my ears for the strum of Ray's guitar.
He continued by trashing celebrity chefs. He threw some shots at a short, round chick with an annoying voice who has a cooking show, bagged on a dude with spiky blond hair and sunglasses on the back of his head from some other Food Network show. The crowd, obvious fans of cooking shows, prodded him on with sardonic laughter and hoots of agreement. I, however, was completely lost. Not only had I never seen Tony's show, but I'd only watched one Food Network show in my life, and that's because I was on it. And that show sucked.
After the crowd-pleasing Food Network ribbing, he carried on about his show on the Travel Channel, everyone's dream job: travel the world with your mouth and your guts. His stories of eating his way through parts of Vietnam, Morocco and other exotic locales were told with an easy confidence; he spoke of sitting at the table, sharing food and drink with people and learning about their culture. "When in another country, I eat what I'm offered because I don't want to insult the host," he said (or close enough). He allowed those words to settle in, then followed with this: "Which is why I have such a problem with fucking vegetarians." The crowd erupted in hoots and hollers of support that seemed to carry on for minutes. I heard guffaws and saw high-fives being exchanged; was that Sheehan pumping his fist in the air? Our friends below looked up to see our reaction. What could we do but smile?