Cafe Society

Chef and Tell

Chefs acquire weight over time. I'm not talking about pounds packed on the beltline from nights spent surrounded by food, but rather a kind of metaphoric weight -- a density of celebrity that increases incrementally with each mention of their names by critics and chowhounds, a slow accretion of notoriety that builds with every meal they serve. Contrary to what the Food Network might try to sell you, rocket rides to kitchen stardom are a rare thing in the food world, as much a piece of popular mythology as the idea of a young starlet being discovered at a Hollywood Boulevard soda fountain. The truth is, most chefs -- no matter how good or bad or pretty or crazy they might be -- will labor for their entire careers in relative obscurity, known only by those people who've had wonderful meals at their hands, and they'll be happy with that fate.

Radek Cerny isn't a nationally renowned chef, but he's been kicking around Colorado long enough that his name carries some punch. He has a reputation, earned through decades in the kitchen, and his restaurants hold a prominent place in local foodie lore. Cerny started winning fans at his European Cafe in Boulder, and those fans just became more faithful when he opened Papillon Cafe almost a decade ago. With its classic menu and chic Cherry Creek address, Papillon was a darling of the food scene for years, then suddenly closed its doors a few weeks ago. The only explanation Cerny provided was that he was burned out; he now would concentrate all of his energies on Le Chantecler, the country-French restaurant he opened in Niwot almost three years ago.

As I sat down in this last surviving outpost of chef Cerny's culinary kingdom, I felt all the weight of that reputation hanging over me. I searched through Le Chantecler's menu and tried to absorb every detail about this place -- which, at least for the time being, will be the sole focus of his experience and talent. And that's probably why I didn't notice the guy at the table next to me having the ahi tuna carpaccio. He was the sort I usually peg right away as being ripe with entertaining possibilities, what with the earnest expression, the modest girth just shading over into porky, and the fervent gleam in his eyes that looked halfway between amphetamine psychosis and fanatic religious conversion. Normally, I would have picked him out as soon as I stepped into the dining room, but like I said, I was distracted. Thankfully, the Food Gods (in particular, the ones who watch over loudmouth, half-bright critics like me) are munificent with their prodigal offspring and saw fit to have me seated next to him, anyway.

And finally, I did see that this guy was having the carpaccio. He was having the same ahi tuna carpaccio that I was having, and he was thrilled with it, raving in restrained tones, but clearly on the verge of going into convulsions of bogus-foodie ecstasy.

I watched as he cut off a big piece with the edge of his fork, swirled it along the edge of the plate until it was dripping with Thai vinaigrette, then poked it across the table at his dinner companion, who smiled and politely tried to wave it off. The foodie insisted, jabbing the tuna-laden fork at his friend. Because the dining room was noisy, I couldn't hear what he was saying, but I imagine it went something like this:

"Bob," the foodie says. "Try the tuna. It's fantastic." Poke. "It's fabulous, Bob." Poke. Poke. "Bob, I'm telling you. Try this tuna." Poke.

Meanwhile, Bob was looking desperately around the dining room for a means of escape. He was searching for doors, open windows, the timely intervention of a busboy refilling water glasses, anything. Secretly, I was praying that Bob would pick up his butter knife and jab his foodie friend in the neck, but instead, at last, he tried the tuna. He took the fat, purplish chunk of ahi that had been quivering on the end of the foodie's fork dripping vinaigrette all over the tablecloth, put it in his mouth, chewed twice and swallowed.

And the face he made was priceless. Like two caterpillars humping, his eyebrows squirmed and met in the middle of his forehead, his eyes shut, his mouth twisted into a grimace like his teeth had just told a dirty joke and his lips were trying to get away, and his Adam's apple jerked up and down as he attempted to finish swallowing.

Bob, apparently, did not like the tuna. And yet, across the table, the foodie grinned a broad, stupid grin and dug right back in, rolling his eyes and totally in love with every last bite.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan