As a certain aging rocker likes to sing, every picture tells a story. But restaurants do, too, and the one told by Stowaway Coffee + Kitchen is largely autobiographical. Launched this winter by Amy Cohen and her husband, Hayden Barnie, Stowaway draws together strands of Cohen’s life. There are influences from Japan, where she met Barnie, and from Australia — two places the Illinois native called home for the better part of a decade. Cohen’s childhood is visible, too: Her mother, Yoko, can often be seen helping out at Stowaway. “Like me, most of [my mom’s] experience comes from cooking at home, but that’s what keeps it special,” says Cohen. “Stowaway is our breakfast club. It’s our home.” Read on for more of our conversation.
Westword: Denver has no shortage of coffee shops and brunch places, but Stowaway Coffee + Kitchen occupies a different niche. It’s been described as an Australian-style cafe. What, exactly, does that mean?
Amy Cohen: First off, Hayden wouldn’t be so stoked if he heard me describing our business as an “Australian-style cafe,” since he is a New Zealander and they have very much the same cafe culture. But, yes, I’d say that we are aiming for a different niche that sets us slightly apart from what exists stateside. I can’t speak for Hayden, but what I personally took away from the cafe culture in Australia was that craft coffee and good-quality breakfast and lunch went hand in hand. Not only that, but most of the cafes in Melbourne had a unique and refreshing vibe that no doubt was a reflection of their operators. They were all independently owned and supported by like-minded communities. Menus were creative and dynamic, and the competition was so high that you had to carve your own niche or die.
When did you get the idea that ultimately became Stowaway, and how similar is Stowaway to what you originally conceived?
I guess the very first notion of Stowaway occurred in Melbourne, where we lived in a big, old beautiful share house with this incredible kitchen of soft pine, high ceilings and stained-glass windows that opened up to a fairy-esque back yard with a mossy, brick-lined pathway surrounded by plenty of wild flora. With our housemates, we started hosting a weekly event called Berry Street Breakfast Club, aka BBC, where we’d all invite different friends and sometimes randoms for Sunday-morning breakfast, listening to the PBS radio shows and churning out breakfasts of every variety imaginable. It quickly grew, and we played around with the idea of turning it into a business. That obviously didn’t happen, but that was most definitely where the concept of Stowaway came about: good food, good company, good times. So I guess in terms of concept, I’d like to think that the original idea and the realization are very similar.
After such extensive travels, you could’ve opened Stowaway in any number of places. Why did you decide to open it in Denver?
Hayden and I actually hopped around the States a bit looking for the right place. We originally had our sights set on Oakland, but to be honest, we just couldn’t afford California. We had jobs lined up but we couldn’t find a space, not to mention a place to live! Denver almost happened by chance. We came to visit my older brother and his family and were blown away by pretty much everything. Admittedly, Adam (my brother) was on the hard sell, and he showed us the goods. We started scoping out the coffee/food scene and loved how open-armed people were within the industry. Denver industry folk were all about collaboration instead of competition. And maybe it’s because it isn’t a big enough city to have to worry about that yet, but I like to think it’s because of the state of mind here.
Did you switch careers to open Stowaway? Was it always a dream of yours to open a restaurant?
I can’t say I’ve ever had a “career.” I’ve had a lot of different jobs, but none that I considered doing for a lifetime. I guess opening this was more like a series of realizations rather than a lifetime dream. I first realized how much I loved food, cooking and cooking for people. Then I realized that there was an amazing cafe culture in the antipodes that we didn’t share stateside. Then there was the realization that we had the perfect opportunity to give it a go. So why not, right?
Both of you have a background in the coffee business, but neither of you has much of a food background. Why not just open a coffee shop?
Herein lies the difference between our (Americans’) idea of a coffee shop and the one in Melbourne. The cafes I worked at there were hardly just coffee shops. Most of them had full kitchens where we’d dish out breakfast and lunch for people on the go as well as people looking to hang out and share a meal with co-workers or friends. One of the cafes I worked at, Cibi, offered a mean Japanese breakfast on the weekends that would attract a line out the door the entire day. I actually learned how to use an espresso machine when I was working in the kitchen and they were shorthanded on coffee. So food always came first for me. That being said, I don’t profess to have a lot of experience and knowledge. I am very much an amateur. Like I said, I just like to cook.
Tell us about the menu. How is it similar to/different from what you’d find in a cafe in Australia?
Australia’s not just Vegemite and avocado toast. Of course, these are Aussie classics — but cafe menus everywhere have so much more to offer. Everyone there seems to celebrate Melbourne’s ethnic culinary diversity and will happily take on their own interpretations. In that respect, I’d say that my menu is similar to that of an Australian cafe.
When I think of Australian coffee, I think of the flat white. I’m curious as to why you don’t have it on the menu.
Of course, we’ll make one if someone requests it, but to tell you the truth, we couldn’t justify spending more money for the necessary cups. We would’ve had to get a five-ounce cup in addition to the four-ounce (cortado) and six-ounce (cappuccino). Three separate cups with just an ounce of difference? No thanks!
What was the inspiration for the recipes?
A lot of the influence is largely from Japan and Australia. I grew up eating Japanese food, so it occupies a special place in my heart. As long as I am in the kitchen, the menu will never not have any Japanese influence. I also gained Middle Eastern influences in Australia when Hayden and I would head down to Coburg for an Egyptian falafel (made with fava beans!) or Brunswick for a mankoush (Lebanese pita pizza), or the South Melbourne market for a gozleme (Turkish thin flatbread filled with goodies like spinach and cheese). These flavors were very new to me, and I became a bit obsessed, cooking everything and anything Middle Eastern.
You’ve been open several months now. How are people responding to the menu, and will we see changes moving forward?
So far, I think people are responding well — though it’s difficult to tell because more people are willing to give a compliment than a complaint to your face. I was nervous that it would be too different, too foreign, but I think Denver is hungry for something new. If you want pancakes, you know where to go. If you want to try something different, we’ve got you covered. With that in mind, I don’t plan on getting complacent. It’s true, having a restaurant might anchor us down for a bit, but the beauty of food is that you don’t have to take a flight to experience a new cuisine. Additionally, we’ve got a fantastic crew with their own imaginations and experiences who continue to add to the bubbling pot of ideas we’ve got going on.
Opening a restaurant is no cakewalk. What proved to be the biggest challenge?
I’d have to say that my biggest challenge is being a boss. I’ve never run a kitchen and I’m not a natural leader. I’m slowly learning how to do it in my own way, but in the meantime, I’m just thankful for having such a receptive and patient crew.
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Do you have any prior restaurant experience? If not, where did you learn to cook?
Cooking at home and cooking in a commercial kitchen are two very different things. Admittedly, most of my experience comes from cooking at home, learning from friends and family. I cooked with other families in Japan and Australia and lived with many different people with different cooking styles and influences, which all contributed to my approach in the kitchen. I had experience in a more formal setting when I worked in kitchens in Australia, although I would hardly call them formal; a lot less stainless steel and proper kitchen attire. I wore Converse. I’m pretty sure there was a hole in the toe.
When you were little, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
I don’t know. I don’t remember spending too much time thinking about the future. If someone asked, my answer would’ve probably been a ridiculous projection of what I was really into at the time, like Michael Jackson: “Yep, I’m going to be Michael Jackson when I grow up.”
What’s your earliest food memory?
Cherry-pit-spitting contests off the front porch with my barefooted brothers. I always won. I still do. (This may or may not be a challenge.)
What foods do you miss most from other places you’ve lived?
I hate to say the obvious, but it’s got to be the sushi from Japan. The fish was incredibly fresh and ever-changing, but it wasn’t just about the food. It was the whole experience. You’d push past the noren (Japanese curtain), into a bustling tiny space greeted by a round of enthusiastic “Irasshaimase!” (welcome) and sit right at the counter asking the taisho (sushi chef) what was good that day. In the winter, I’d have warm sake with my sushi, and I’d get this fuzzy feeling in my cheeks that I would consider to be the pinnacle of happiness. That or the food stalls at the markets in Melbourne. People shouting prices and haggling. Little old ladies elbowing their way past you to the fresh mangoes. A wide array of salumi hanging from the butcher shop front. And then there were the stalls: gozleme, paella, banh mi. So many options. Again, it’s all about the whole package for me.
Stowaway Coffee + Kitchen is located at 2528 Walnut Street. For more information, call 720-583-5481 or go to stowawaydenver.com.