The menu at the pop-culture-riddled Carbon Beverage Cafe, which just opened in the former home of Paris on the Platte, reads either like the weed-addled daydreams of a couple of sofa-bound stoners or like the offbeat but brilliant creations of some clever cooks. While pot references abound (side sauces are called “hits,” and Mary Jane, hemp and hash are all there), many of the dish names seem taken straight from the awesome record and DVD collections of said couch surfers. It’s possible that, as kids, executive chef Scott Parker and culinary manager TJ Bresina spent too much time glued to late-night movie reruns on HBO or spent every penny saved from their lawn-mowing gigs on rap CDs, but now they’re combining their accumulated wisdom — and a lot of hard work — to challenge Denver coffeehouse patrons with new inventions as well as loopy takes on comfort-food favorites.
Parker seems an unlikely chef to head up a cafe and doughnut shop (his title extends to the next-door Habit Doughnut Dispensary, also under the ownership of Lisa Ruskaup); he was most recently the exec at Session Kitchen, which, despite a confusing menu that tried to put a Gen-Y spin on upscale small plates, produced some pretty exquisite fare. Before that, he was chef at the tiny but forward-thinking Table 6 for a decade. And over the years, he’s picked up a reputation for reinventing — and often improving — childhood favorites.
Take tater tots, for example. Parker produced the crunchy potato bites while at Table 6, but with different equipment in the kitchen at Habit/Carbon, he and Bresina needed to figure out how to get them just right using a new method. After much experimentation, they determined that poaching the potatoes at 180 degrees created the best texture. After the potatoes are cooled, they’re shredded, mixed with potato starch and salt and pepper, then deep-fried. At Carbon, they’re called Wu Tang Tots and are served savory (studded with bacon bits) or sweet (as doughnut tots). Parker thinks they’re a vast improvement over those he remembers from his early years. “I went back to Sonic about three years ago, and they sucked,” he explains.
Bresina says his own career has been a balance of “cooking mass quantities while trying to keep it creative and unique.” His last job was at the Fossil Trace Golf Club restaurant, where weddings and banquets were a regular part of the equation; the kitchen he’s in now is tiny in comparison, and the crew is small. Volume isn’t the main focus — except for the doughnuts, which fall under the aegis of executive pastry chef Jessica Desormeaux — so Bresina focuses on consistency as well as quality. “We’re in Dr. Seuss land, only scalable and repeatable,” he notes. “We’re trying to incorporate media and new music…and how we can take something that’s comfortable and tweak it and turn it on its ear.”
One of Bresina’s contributions to the menu is pizza in a cup, lifted from Steve Martin’s The Jerk. To make his version, the team first had to perfect the “best food ever”: baked brioche bites made from the same dough that Desormeaux created for her doughnuts. Those tot-sized dough balls form the base of the pizza in a cup and get topped with a marinara-style sauce, mozzarella, thick pieces of Polidori pepperoni and pepperoni powder, which Parker explains is made by crisping pepperoni and buzzing it in a food processor with tomato powder.
Other dishes inspired by childhood memories, movies, marijuana or a mash-up of all of the above are the Shake n’ Bake (a fried-chicken sandwich on a savory doughnut), the ’60s TV Dinner (with meatloaf, mashed potatoes and applesauce) and the Green Eggs n’ Hash, brightened with spinach and matcha chive oil. “It’s late-night drunk food or early-morning hangover food,” says Bresina.
Parker and Bresina have been working on recipes since the start of the year; work on the brioche dough took even longer. “Jessica and Levi [Kuettel] — those two stepped up,” Parker notes. Plenty of ideas were batted around — and many were batted down as being impractical or too hard to replicate consistently. Foie gras doughnuts and beef-filet sliders that were served at a tasting for investors never made it to the final menu. With Ruskaup’s connections to the Breckenridge-Wynkoop group, Parker and Bresina were able to finalize the opening menu by working on recipes and techniques at Session Kitchen before it closed, and at the Farm House Restaurant at Breckenridge Brewery before that place opened with a bang in May.
Breckenridge-Wynkoop company chef Chris Cina even pitched in a little advice. “He’s the voice of reason,” Bresina says, then rattles off a list of possibilities that they’ve been considering, with Parker riffing on those for potential new menu items: mini-pigs in blankets made with brioche dough and dubbed Doobie snacks; a doughnut Philly cheese steak or banh mi; sushi-style burritos and pepperoni cream cheese. When it comes to creative possibilities, the ideas are only limited by practicality. “That happens a thousand times a day in my head,” admits Parker. “I just don’t always talk about them.”
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The other limiting factor right now is the size of the staff. Parker, Bresina and the Habit/Carbon crew are working breakfast, lunch and dinner, so playing with new ideas is a goal secondary to serving current customers. That will change, says Parker, “once we get some more cooks in here. We need cooks!” After that, he promises, Carbon will be able to add to the fun, offering specials and secret menu items. (There’s one already: The DMZ glaze that comes on the Korean BBQ dish called the 38th Parallel can also be ordered as a side sauce with tots.) And while they’d like to have food that springs with surprises, Bresina says they’re not trying to scare anyone away. As it is, with the funky opening menu and the unique Modbar coffee-and-drinks system, a customer’s initial stop at Carbon can be a little intimidating.
“It’s like the first time you get a beer in a movie theater,” Parker says, pointing out that the experience is a little strange — a little thrilling, even — but after the novelty wears off, you’re left wondering what the big deal is and why it never happened before.
Doughnuts: not a big deal. An exposed-brick coffeehouse with graffiti on the walls and a counterculture vibe: an idea that’s been around for decades. But Ruskaup has set the stage for Parker and Bresina to give Habit and Carbon the same tantalizingly lurid appeal as street art, hip-hop videos and bleary-eyed all-nighters. And to that stage, the two bring a foundation of good cooking with quality ingredients. There might be a TV dinner on the menu, but there’s no freezer in the kitchen.