Cafe Option's Craig Dixon on women, Yelp-type restaurant reviews and his liver

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Craig Dixon Cafe Options 1650 Curtis Street 303-573-0733 www.cafeoptions.com

Craig Dixon, chef of Cafe Options, is struggling. I've just asked him what it's like to work in a kitchen staffed predominantly by females -- the restaurant is a project of Work Options for Women, a local nonprofit that provides women with the necessary employment prowess to flourish in the food industry -- and, after thoughtful consideration and a few short stories about past girlfriends, he has an answer: "I've certainly learned good communication skills, you know, because of all those feelings and emotions. Gotta love developing those skills."

But it's working side-by-side with the hardworking women of Cafe Options that gives Dixon the most satisfaction. A Massachusetts-born, self-described Colorado ski bum who bounced around kitchens in Breckenridge before eventually settling down in Denver, Dixon says he loves working with people who are passionate about bettering their lives. "It's so unbelievably empowering when you can help others find a job, and the interns who work for me -- the ambassadors of this program -- get so fired up about learning new things and wanting to progress in this business," explains Dixon, whose interns spend four weeks working at Cafe Options before moving onward and upward.

"I would have been a fool had I not accepted this job," he admits. "I think the program is amazing, and I loved the idea of starting fresh with a new restaurant, building a menu and recipe books, and taking all the random things I've learned throughout my career and lending them to a restaurant that cares more about its people than anything else."

Support from the community has been overwhelming, an essential element when 100 percent of the proceeds from Cafe Options go to Work Options for Women. "It was a little tough during the first six months, but more and more people are coming in, because they know we're feeding them good food to help a good cause," Dixon says. It's a good day, he jokes, "when everyone in downtown comes here instead of Subway."

The fact that the staff scratch-makes several ingredients in-house is part of Cafe Options' allure. "We already make our own garbanzo beans for our hummus, our own pickles, sauerkraut and mustard, and I think our customers appreciate that, because it's healthier and just better," he says. Soon, Dixon will begin making his own mozzarella and curing his own meats; a rooftop herb and vegetable garden is in the works, too.

In this interview, Dixon talks about hanging out in his favorite Denver restaurants, orchestrating a battle between Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart (street cred vs. time), smoking lamb on his backyard griller and bolstering the benefits of butter.

Six words to describe your food: Fresh, healthy, simple, familiar and correctly seasoned.

Ten words to describe you: Journeyman, quirky, life of the party, who brought that guy?

Culinary inspirations: I grew up in a big family of big people, where food was always the center of our events and functions. Lobstermen and fishermen were the local industry while I was growing up, and still are today. I went to elementary school with kids who bemoaned eating lobster and cod seven days a week, and I'm pretty sure I'd eaten my weight in crab and lobster several times over by the time I was six. Crab boils, clam bakes and mountains of lobster would be laid out on newspaper-lined picnic tables, and many young Dixons and cousins would attack -- always victoriously. This was how we grew up, around the dinner table, so my wanting to be a part of all the cooking was a natural process. And I remember being a little kid and watching Julia Child and Jacques Pépin on the local PBS affiliate in Boston with my mom, thinking how cool it was that these TV personalities were excited about products so close to home: fish from Gloucester, Ipswich clams and local farms around Concord. And I loved that they both talked funny. It was in 1994, while I was ski-bumming in Breckenridge, that I first came into contact with food and a chef who really lit my culinary fire. It was a new fine-dining restaurant that opened with a couple of young, great chefs out of Miami, and I remember being amazed at the beauty of the demi-glace made from roasting pans full of bones and mirepoix -- amazed by the creativity and craft and exposure to classic techniques. I knew I wanted this as my life.

Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Opening a successful restaurant, Cafe Options, during an economic downturn was certainly big, but more important is having a job that allows me to help people who want to help themselves. The interns I train at Cafe Options, who come to me after working twelve weeks at the Work Options for Women program, are from various backgrounds, but are all working to rebuild their lives and to seize an opportunity to change their lives. There's a certain sense of pride that comes from seeing the women we teach become successful in the kitchen and, ultimately, self-sufficient. In fact, one of our recent interns is now a valuable employee at Tony's Market on Broadway.

Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Respect the product; respect the profession; focus on the task at hand; take notes; ask questions; clean as you go; and eliminate chatter.

Favorite music to cook by: Pretty Lights, a band from Colorado, Split Lip Rayfield and STS9.

Biggest kitchen disaster: Yet to happen. I always ended up working next to the guy who set his coat on fire or burned the chef, so by default, I'd look good just by standing next to them. I try to keep an eye out for disasters: Failing to prepare is preparing for failure.

What's never in your kitchen? A poor attitude. That shit gets you sent home quick.

What's always in your kitchen? Respect for the product, co-workers, guests, bacon fat and Sriracha sauce.

What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: More late-night options for chefs and smaller menus. Too often, chefs try to please everyone and end up doing too many things with mediocrity. I'd like to see more weird food, too, like trotter roulades, which I recently had at Izakaya Den. That's somebody who's thinking out of the box.

What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: People putting too much value in Yelp-type restaurant reviews, especially the negative reviews, which are so overvalued. The reviews are great as a guideline for getting a general overview of a restaurant, but I take the majority of the reviews with a grain of salt, if for no other reason than so many of them are factually wrong.

What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? An indirect gift of a strong back and a strong will directly from my parents.

Favorite dish to cook at home: Barbecued lamb shoulder on the smoker is a nice weekend project.

Favorite dish on your menu: Our rare roast beef sub with horseradish Havarti, grilled red onions and homemade aioli. It's simple, but not common in Denver. Where I grew up, just north of Boston, you couldn't swing a cat without hitting an Italian sub shop. It's all about great classic ingredients and quality meats. Carbone's Italian Sausage Deli is a perfect example of a Denver joint that does great sandwiches; I think our roast beef is another.

If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? I like neck: fish neck, lamb neck, maybe neck three ways.

One book that every chef should read: The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. It's a great history of the American diet -- why we eat what we eat.

What show would you pitch to the Food Network? Death Battle of Celebrity Chefs. I'd pit Rachael Ray against Martha Stewart. Rachael has the street cred, but Martha has done time. Tell me you wouldn't watch.

Current Denver culinary genius: Max MacKissock. His food is amazing and beautifully creative without being irrelevant.

You're making a hamburger. What's on it? More important is what's in it. It's got to be freshly ground beef. At Cafe Options, we break down large cuts of beef so we always have quality scrap, and some days, this gets ground fresh for employee burgers. The looks on their faces after tasting freshly ground beef is great -- kind of a "Wow, so this is what a real burger tastes like." What's on it? Iceberg lettuce, ripe tomatoes, aioli, and that's pretty much it.

Hardest lesson you've learned: A liver is a terrible thing to waste. Drink top-shelf only.

Read part two of Lori Midson's interview with Craig Dixon.

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