Blake Edmunds and his kitchen just rolled out several new dishes at Señor Bear; they’re adapting the three-month-old restaurant’s offerings for the season, and also for the neighborhood’s tastes. Not that the neighborhood’s been complaining: Stop by this corner space in LoHi that once housed the original Squeaky Bean and then Jezebel’s, and you’re likely to find an energetic crowd, even on a weeknight. Edmunds and the cohort that owns Señor Bear — Juan Padro, Katie O’Shea Padro and Max MacKissock — weren’t initially set on opening a Latin American joint, but once they committed, they went full bore. Here, Edmunds talks about the trip that inspired much of the menu, the dish that led to his first and only time being fired, and why he still needs tweezers to plate despite his preference for rustic styling.
Westword: You’ve worked in a number of kinds of restaurants and styles of cuisine. Why Latin American at Señor Bear?
Blake Edmunds: It was the space. We toyed around with French or Latin. With Z Cuisine gone, we thought the aesthetics of the space could make it a good French restaurant. It’s just not what we wanted to do. Juan and I got to talking and realized Latin is what we wanted to do. Then we accidentally named the restaurant after me, which was ridiculous. No one had ideas. We started putting names up on a whiteboard: a lot were cool, some were hard to say. My nickname is Whiskey Bear, and Señor Bear became the one people kind of liked the most. It had all the fun opportunities to do branding.
And then you and Max MacKissock did a pretty extensive research trip.
We picked Peru and Mexico. We wanted to get into South America and see that culture, and Katie and Juan had been [to Peru] before and spoke super-highly of the food. We only ate one totally typical Peruvian meal: We went to Isolina and had sofrito-braised ribs with rice and beans. It was incredible. The ambience was really fun — it was all open windows with old men serving you, and the drinks were great. Other than that, we stuck to the San Pellegrino top fifty restaurants — Maido, Central, La Mar. The seafood is killer. There’s also a lot of Japanese and Chinese influence in Peru. Some of that food, I’m trying to replicate. We had a green-rice tamale filled with baby shrimp, and they did it like a six-minute egg: They made the dough, topped it up with shrimp, steamed it, and served it with beautiful pickled julienne vegetables. Then we went to Mexico to experience Oaxaca and Mexico City. I wish we’d skipped Tulum, because there was not enough time to have a cool beach vacation, and the food culture there is very Westernized. But Mexico City is next-level: We got to see some new things that we hadn’t seen before. We’re gonna have to hit Puerto Rico soon because of Juan and Karla [Ortiz, general manager]. If I mentioned that today, we’d be there in two weeks, I’m sure of it.
You and Max have worked together a lot — and I’ve heard both of you say that you push each other in the kitchen. What’s your collaboration process like?
It’s more like a dialogue, and then one of us goes and does it. Maybe I’ll have a dish and he’ll say, we could use this on there, or this instead of that. We don’t really cook together side by side anymore, so it’s more about giving creative constructive advice about food. He helped me open Señor Bear for the first three weeks, but then Carrie [Baird] took over at Bar Dough, so he went to help her. My sous-chef Danny and I do all the dishes at Señor Bear. Max and I talk big-picture concept stuff, and the direction of where we see our restaurants going.
So there will be more restaurants?
Oh, yeah. It’s the staffing market that’s slowing us down; it’s pretty tough, and has been for a couple of years now, so it’s hard to think about trying to open more restaurants when we can barely staff the ones we have. We’ve got to become a market leader in terms of our offerings so we can attract new talent. How do we get the best talent consistently? That’s the hardest part right now. With Katie and Juan as our backbone, the financial side is very structured and sound.
Talk a bit about your history. How did you get into cooking?
Happenstance. I got a job in college working at Chili’s. I worked front-of-the-house there first, but my buddy worked in the kitchen, and that looked like more fun. My mom was working for a nonprofit health-care center in Fort Lupton, and one of the doctors said, “My mom runs Culinary School of the Rockies in Boulder — Blake should check it out.” I went in for a day, watched people go through lessons and then sat down for lunch and said, “Yep, I’ll do that.” They did a month in France, which was a pretty big selling point for me. So my mom kind of tipped me in and pushed me over the ledge.
You’ve since made your way through some heavy-hitting restaurants.
I connected with Troy Guard, who gave me my first real job out of culinary school, at 975, but I thought the real fine-dining scene was in the mountains. So I worked at La Tour in Vail, but it wasn’t what I thought it was; I spent a season up there and moved back. Then I worked for Alex Seidel at Fruition for a little over four years, working my way from line cook to sous-chef. Then I moved to California and worked at the Restaurant at Meadowood. That was the first and only job I got fired from. I worked a tough station: garde manger. It was all cold dishes and cheese plates, and there were anywhere from thirteen to fifteen dishes that came off of it. I showed up and was thrown in with no training. You’d get handed recipes, and it was implied that you understood. I didn’t have the requisite background to be successful.
So what was the dish that got you fired?
I’ll remember it forever: It was this sea cucumber dish. We were playing on different flavors, and I put a sea bean on the plate, the size of which had been okayed by chef before service. But during service, he stood behind me and said, Blake, I think we’re done here. None of us were successful on that station. You’d either get fired or they’d like you enough to move you on to hot apps.
You seem to have bounced back fine.
It was a good learning experience; it made me question a lot of things and my direction. I moved on to Ubuntu in Napa, which is a vegetarian restaurant. I worked there until it closed, then moved to Oakland and worked at Haven under Kim Alter, who is a really great chef. While I was at Haven, I wasn’t sure what I was doing, and I passed up a sous-chef job opportunity with them. Max called me up out of the blue and said, “Hey, I heard you might not be super-content. Are you interested in coming back and working with the Squeaky Bean team?” I staged for a couple of days in the test kitchen, and it was a really good fit. So I did the Squeaky Bean version 2.0 until that went the way it did. Max and I left and did a consulting job with Williams & Graham, and then we were looking for a new restaurant space. We were going to do something with the Cap Rock and Peak Spirits people. We were looking for a space, and then the money guy decided he no longer wanted to do food and beverage; the deal fell through at the eleventh hour. At that point, I was pretty frustrated. Chris Schmidt, who had worked with me at Fruition and the Squeaky Bean, had moved up to Vail to Sweet Basil, and he invited me to come up and cook with him. I did that for a year. It was a really hard kitchen: We were doing 250, 300 people a night with high-level food and service, and all the goofballs you have to employ up there. It taught me patience and a better business sense. But I never liked living in Vail; it’s just not my kind of mountain town. Max again called me when he was opening Bar Dough and asked, “Do you want to come down and do this thing again?” There was the intention that there were other projects in the works, and I would be in charge of the next one.
How has your style evolved from all of that experience?
At this point, I can pretty much cook any style of food; it’s just a matter of doing research and getting my hands on products. I find myself attracted to simpler food — better products with simpler presentations. Less is more. I like to focus on a single ingredient and make it shine. Señor Bear is all about salt, acid and spice. I want high acid, high heat, aggressive salt. I’ve cooked all these fancy plates of food that are super-tweezered, even over-garnished, but I think we’ve struck a balance at Señor Bear. We have super-rustic dishes like the queso fundido, but also this scallop dish with beautiful knife cuts and flowers.
So do you have tweezers?
Of course. My sausage fingers need the tweezers occasionally for precision.
What’s always in your fridge or pantry?
Quesadilla fixings and lots of hot sauce: El Yucateco, sambal, sriracha, Captain Spongefoot. And lots of LaCroix — grapefruit, lemon, lime, orange, tangerine.
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How about a favorite late-night snack?
Cosmo’s Pizza. At the end of the night, pollo bronco. Everyone loves making tacos at the end of the night.
Any particular ingredient you’re digging right now?
It changes all the time. I’ve been using sesame a lot recently — it made its way into two new dishes.
What’s your shift drink?
Right now, Montucky Cold Snacks and rye whiskey; occasionally a frozen drink.
Señor Bear is located at 3301 Tejon Street; it's open from 3 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 3 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Find out more at 720-572-5997 or senorbeardenver.com.