Chef News

Brett Smith on Fried Chicken, Boulder and the Post Brewing Co.

For Brett Smith, bird is the word.
For Brett Smith, bird is the word. Laura Shunk
At the start of November, Dave Query’s Big Red F group rolled out its fourth location of the Post Brewing Co., bestowing on downtown Boulder a fried-chicken joint that also brews its own beer. And it’s not likely to be the last outpost, says chef and partner Brett “Smitty” Smith. We caught up with Smith to talk about the research behind his gluten-free bird, overlooked items on the Post menus, and why the Boulder spot is a good blueprint for what future Posts will look like.

Westword: The first Post opened three years ago in Lafayette. What was the genesis of the concept?

Brett Smith: When I was at Zolo, Dave Query was working on a bunch of things, and we were talking about what would be next, what I wanted to be involved in next. I had looked at doing things on my own, and we talked about what if we did Zolo in Fort Collins. Dave was interested in having a brewery for Big Red F, and I started talking about fried chicken. He came across the VFW space in Lafayette. I was about to go on a father-son trip to Raleigh, and he said, “You’ve gotta go look at this building in Lafayette.” I live in Erie, so this was close to home, in my community. I saw the space and said, “Let’s do this.” Raleigh ended up being my first R&D chicken trip. Dave bought the building, and it took us over a year to open. We put a lot of time into the space — how we built the menu, and the research we did on fried chicken. We found an incredible brewer to get us started. I wasn’t a huge craft-beer person until we started to do this project, and then I started getting into it.

And now there are four locations, including the one that just opened on Boulder’s 13th Street. So that fine-tuning really paid off!

Lafayette was a crazy-busy success. One of the things I’m most proud of is how people rallied around us. In the beginning, we’d have a line out the door at 3:45 p.m., and we opened at 4. We’d be on a wait by 4:15, 4:30, and this is in small-town Lafayette…. When we did the location in Longmont, we tried a more streamlined version from what’s in Lafayette. We started with fast-casual but decided it wasn’t us, so we switched it up, which is still kind of a challenge. In January of this year, we went down to the Rosedale neighborhood in Denver. It has a similar feeling as Lafayette — people in the neighborhood wanted something they could walk to. Then we started figuring out this [Boulder] space in the summer. We took it over September 20, and we were open November 2. It’s been awesome but crazy. There’s so much going on.

The Post Brewing Co's fried chicken and sides. - COURTESY OF THE POST
The Post Brewing Co's fried chicken and sides.
Courtesy of the Post
Anything different about the new Boulder location?

It’s now our second one with the brewery. We’re going to have live music here, which is super-cool. Dave is a big music lover, so it’s kind of been a dream to have a music venue. We’re trying to get settled in here for now, but in 2018, we’re looking into having live music Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and doing some other programming, like comedy nights. I think we’ll be sticking with our honky-tonk Midwest-cabin vibe, with stuff that’s bluesy and rock. But who knows? For our opening party, we had a Grateeful Dead and Pink Floyd cover band.

You did all that initial research on fried chicken. What is the key to your poultry?

We figured out pretty quickly that we were going to use a pressure fryer — there’s somewhere Dave goes in Michigan that uses a pressure fryer. We got into a kitchen with one of our purveyors and started working with different flour blends and spice combinations; we probably tried 75 to 100 different versions. And we found out a bunch of stuff. Lillabee [flour] is the brand we used; the owner, Jared Lovenduski, worked at Jax forever and started this gluten-free flour brand [with his wife, Indea Leo]. We weren’t intending for it to be gluten-free, but it worked best for the chicken. It browned up really well, and it doesn’t absorb as much oil. We messed around with buttermilk, brine and stages of breading, and eventually settled on lemon and rosemary brine and two stages of breading. With the pressure fryer, we’re able to control the consistency while frying six whole birds at one time, and it’s all digitized, so it’s almost impossible to screw it up. And the chicken holds really well: We do 48 pieces at once, and the optimal time to hold is fifteen to twenty minutes, like resting a turkey or steak. At Lafayette, we move around 2,000 pounds of chicken every week. Among the four restaurants, we do between 5,500 and 6,000 pounds of chicken per week.

Two new locations in a year is a lot. Is the plan to expand from here?

I think we’re happy with trying to find the right places when the right places come up. Dave has a lot of contacts, and people are always throwing spaces at us. But, yeah, the first day Boulder was open, I was walking around thinking, okay, we need to do this and that, and Dave says, “What do you think’s next?” Here, it’s not like we were pounding the pavement looking for a spot. We’ll keep an eye out. I wouldn’t mind having it be a few months away. We’ve learned that what fits this concept best is doing larger spaces. Moving forward, we’d really like to have the brewery be part of every location. People are so interested in breweries, and it’s great for business to have brewing on site. We started out thinking we’d do smaller locations, and now we’re thinking larger, but less.

Anything on the menu that people are overlooking because of the fried chicken?

We just went through updating the menus and adding some options so that if someone doesn’t want fried chicken, there’s something there for them, as well. We’re doing a take on a shrimp po’ boy: cornmeal-fried or blackened shrimp, and instead of tomato, we’re using a sweet and spicy tomato jam with arugula and housemade remoulade. We added a prime rib sandwich. We wanted something that wasn’t just French dip or cheesesteak, so we’re roasting a prime rib, and you get a seven-ounce steak on a sandwich with horseradish, arugula, crispy fried onions and house pickles. I think that has the potential to be iconic, but we don’t sell a ton of them yet. We try to do special sides, which are ever-changing in all the places. When people are here for the first time, they want the fried chicken, but I hope they see those other things for next time.

click to enlarge Easy-drinking canned beers are the calling card of the Post Brewing Co. - MARK ANTONATION
Easy-drinking canned beers are the calling card of the Post Brewing Co.
Mark Antonation
Talk a little about how you got into this industry.

I wasn’t incredibly into food growing up; I was a picky eater. I’m from the Hudson Valley. Delis and Italian food are big there, and that’s what I was into eating. I learned basic knifes kills at this deli, but I never thought it was what I’d do. I moved to Boulder at nineteen and worked at Eldora for a season. The season ended, and I thought, what am I going to do? I started working in the kitchen. I worked at JJ McCabe’s, and initially I wasn’t that into food — I liked the action and excitement of the kitchen. It was like a sports team; we were working together and hustling. I worked there for a year and a half, and became more interested in food beyond just selling entrees. McCabe’s shared the alley with Jax Fish House, and one of the chefs used to come in and drink. I wanted to learn more about food and work at a more upscale place. He got me in over there. In those days, it was tougher to get a good kitchen job. Jax was a lot of experienced guys, and I was young. But they finally hired me. I worked all day at McCabe’s, and someone didn’t show up, so they asked, “Do you want to come work tonight?” At the end of it, the chef said, “At least we know you can work a long day” — and they hired me. I stayed at Jax for five years and eventually became the sous-chef. I moved to Zolo in 2000 and eventually became the executive chef. Then I decided I wanted to get out of Colorado and see some things, so I bounced around a little bit. I ended up working at ZoZo’s on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. But I always stayed in touch with Dave Query; he’s been a mentor for me. When I left St. John, I went up to Massachusetts, because I was going to open a restaurant there, but that fell through. My son had just been born born, my daughter was two, about to be three, and my wife and I said, “Let’s go back to Colorado.” I hooked back up with Dave, and was back at Zolo from 2008 until 2014, right before we did the Post in Lafayette.

What do you cook at home?

You mean, what does my wife cook at home? I cook for special occasions. We love grilling — vegetables, pork, steak, simple things that don’t take a really long time. We like sitting on the patio, chilling out and letting the kids run around. I really like making chili. I like to make meatballs with my kids. Simple stuff.

What’s always in your fridge?

Post beer. Hot sauce — I love Cholula and this Asian chili garlic paste. I have a smoothie six days a week, so fruit, kale, chia seeds, protein powder — those are the main things.

How about a shift drink?

Depends on how the night went. I love bourbon, so Bulleit, but I usually wait for home to do that. Post beers. Nick, our brewer, just brewed something he’s calling Ski Tan red; it’s pretty heavily hopped — and delicious. Everyone calls me Smitty, so my at-home refreshing shift drink is a Smitty cooler. There’s nothing artisan or craft in it at all, just Absolut Citron, a little shot of orange juice and a little shot of cranberry. That’s more of a summertime drink.

Post Brewing Co.
Four metro Denver locations

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk