"If it's not right, it's wrong." Those are the words of wisdom that chef Brady Marcotte of Table Top, which opened this summer in Park Hill, learned from Steven Redzikowski, chef and co-owner of Boulder's Oak at Fourteenth and Acorn in Denver. Marcotte, who worked for Redzikowski for two years and helped open Acorn in the Source last year, says he strives for the same level of excellence in the kitchen at Table Top.
Of course, there are ups and downs with both service and menu execution at any new restaurant, but Marcotte hopes that cooking to his strengths will get things on track quickly and that a tight bond with his crew, which he says is like a family, will keep the kitchen running at its best. Those strengths -- a focus on wood-fired cooking and a love of offal -- feature prominently on Table Top's menu, which Marcotte describes as "smokehouse-inspired New American." Spare ribs, pork loin and the Carolina-style pulled pork for his sliders all spend time over smoke, while organ meats pop up on both the Chef's burger topped with shaved beef tongue and a charcuterie board offering chicken liver pâté. He's even experimenting with cured meats: A recently added blue prawn dish receives a fatty boost from guanciale made with pork cheeks that Marcotte started curing before the restaurant's opening day.
Marcotte got his first restaurant job at fourteen at a Papa Murphy's in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas; by seventeen he was managing the place, entrusted with keys to the building and a hand in the accounting. But while he may have been driven to succeed at a young age, his passion for cooking was slow to build.
"All I ate was chicken nuggets and fries -- not even burgers," he says of his childhood eating habits. But his French grandfather and the meals cooked by his grandparents gradually won him over. "We had family dinners two or three times a month with twenty to thirty people," he remembers. That classical French aspect of cooking appealed to him and ultimately spurred his move toward a career in the kitchen. After working and traveling, his goal was to become the best saucier he could be, hopefully in a Michelin-starred kitchen in France.
Instead, he wound up in Lawrence, Kansas, and during a vacation in Boulder "realized that the food scene [there] is 100 percent better than Lawrence or Wichita," he says. He also realized there was more to cooking than just the precise attention to sauces and plating required of a saucier. So he moved to Boulder, where he first worked at Colterra doing classical French cuisine, and he also spent time learning vegetarian cuisine at Leaf and Latin American cooking at Aji. He even worked for a sushi chef with 42 years of experience -- mostly sharpening knives, he jokes. It was at the now-defunct Pinyon, though, cooking with chef Theo Adley (who today heads the kitchen at the Squeaky Bean), that the "creative fun," as Marcotte calls it, started to sink in. And at Oak and Acorn, he was able to delve deeper into creativity as well as work with wood-fired cooking.
Now Marcotte is combining what he's learned from his French grandfather with the modern American approach of his Boulder mentors -- with a little Kansas City barbecue inspiration thrown in -- to create Table Top's menu. The fare ranges from Midwestern homey (think cornbread muffins and buttermilk pie from pastry chef Cammie Thomas) to French-influenced (mussels braised in Black Shirt Brewing's red saison) to thoroughly modern and definitely Boulder-inspired (his vegetarian pistachio mushroom sausage).
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There are other beer-centered offerings, too, inspired by the beer list created by restaurant partner Dipesh Amin. The beer-batter pickle chips are made with either local pilsner or Kölsch, depending on what Amin is bringing in at the time, and a porter reduction often makes its way onto the dessert menu. Marcotte likes to keep the menu fresh and seasonal, so the roster changes frequently. Unlike many chefs, he's looking forward to winter, when the restaurant's garage doors will close off the beer garden and he can add some game meats like duck and rabbit. He loves the beer garden and how the guests linger there late into the evening after they've eaten, he says, but without the distraction of summer weather and outdoor drinking, he can work on winning the neighbors over to the more unusual dishes he's hoping to put on the menu.
"I love seeing the weird things go out to table," he confesses -- things like heart or fried chicken livers, which he'd like to add at some point. He already ups the pork quotient with a deep-fat fryer filled with lard, which give the house fries a distinctly porky note, but he's also working on having a second fryer installed so that vegetarians will have a french-fry option, too. Another change he's looking forward to is a full-sized custom smoker that will allow him to slow-roast whole pigs for special events. Right now, he's using a store-bought, backyard-sized model.
Marcotte credits much of Table Top's early success to his kitchen crew. "It's a tight dance," he says of the tiny open kitchen, but he feels like his team of four has come together well. There are in-jokes, and he likes to tease his pastry chef, who makes funny faces when she's concentrating on her craft. But he's all business during dinner service. "Everyone asks, 'Why so serious?' when I'm cooking," Marcotte admits. Although he's more than willing to sit and share beers after a shift, his focus is on the customer when he's working. And at a new restaurant, that's the way it has to be. "On our third night, we did 171 covers -- more than when Acorn opened," he notes.
Working as many as a hundred hours a week hasn't left Marcotte much time to explore the Denver restaurant scene, so his fallback is Acorn, where he still has friends. Redzikowski's restaurants have become incubators for Denver kitchen talent, Marcotte says, adding -- only half-jokingly -- that Oak and Acorn have ruined cooks for the rest of the Denver market because they're now so focused on perfection.
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That's not a bad trait to have in a scene that's seen more than 600 openings in the past two years, and he hopes it's one that Table Top customers appreciate.