Two teenagers became high-school sweethearts in Westchester County, New York, a few decades ago — but as happens with most young romances, they drifted apart. So how is it that years later, the two wound up running a seafood restaurant together in Denver? For Matt and Carrie Stein, owners of the Chowder Room on South Broadway, half a continent and ten years didn’t create an ocean too big to cross.
Matt was born in the Bronx but moved to Westchester with his family when he was ten. He and Carrie met and dated in high school, but then Matt went to the University of Miami to study marine biology. He’d been fascinated by saltwater fish since he was nine, when he worked at an aquarium cleaning floors and tanks; the owners of the shop loaned him books on maintaining aquariums and keeping the fragile fish alive. Ironically, in college he found the field a little “dry,” especially the tables and charts of ocean-current temperatures, so he took a job at a Miami restaurant and soon realized that the hands-on world of cooking held much more appeal than academia. So he moved back to New York and began a restaurant career that included time (as a salad-bar jockey and bartender) at the then-famous Beefsteak Charlie’s before he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, inspired by one of Georges Auguste Escoffier’s books.
“I was fascinated by the scope of how many soups there were,” Matt recalls. “None of that was happening in my home, because my mom was a horrible cook — I mean horrible.” He became absorbed in learning about food and cooking to a degree he’d never thought possible, and after graduating from culinary school, he began working in French kitchens. “The great restaurants in New York were French restaurants, with a couple that were Northern Italian,” he remembers. “It was blasphemy to talk about anything else.”
Before long, he was headed to Switzerland — for a job at a 250-year-old hotel, where he was the only American in a forty-person brigade. “The chef was a great guy,” he says, “but he used to whack the apprentices around.” Fortunately, Matt’s education and experience allowed him to skip the apprentice level, though he was still required to work as commis at every station, each under a separate chef, before moving up. Upon his return to New York, he got his foot in the door at the legendary Le Cirque, but the place was already beginning to fall behind the times, and Matt’s experience there convinced him that a new style of American cooking was emerging, with the likes of Robert Waxman, Larry Forgione and Alice Waters rising to prominence. Of Le Cirque, he remembers mostly the brutal churn: “I made $100 a week for six ten-hour days. There were no breaks; you couldn’t eat. You’d have a cigarette for lunch.”
Rather than stick around New York City for more stress and not much money, Matt went west to Aspen — and after a few years there, working at celebrity magnet Gordon’s, he reached out to Carrie. The two started talking on the phone regularly, and then Carrie moved to Colorado, too. They got married, and when they were expecting their second child, they moved to Los Angeles, where Matt’s father and brother had already relocated from the East Coast. Matt landed a job with King’s Seafood Company, an L.A. fixture that now operates eighteen restaurants under six different names. In the early 1990s, he opened the first Water Grill for King’s; over the years he rose to become chief seafood officer and even headed the company’s push to open its own seafood-distribution service when the restaurant group outgrew its network of distributors.
But with their three kids growing up (the youngest was nearly out of high school), the couple felt the pull of Colorado again. Although he was still involved with the kitchens and menus of the King’s empire, it was getting tougher to be in a good mood, Matt recalls — and they both missed living in a place where they could ride their bikes just about anywhere. They considered Boulder, Fort Collins and Durango, but in the end realized that Denver was where they wanted to open their own restaurant.
They moved here in 2013, when Matt helped a friend open a Denver outpost of Bruxie, a California-based waffle-sandwich chain (the local location didn’t last long). But the couple’s plan all along was to open their own seafood restaurant. Over eighteen months, they looked at more than seventy retail locations, doing full financial workups on many of them. But most prime locations were overvalued, Matt thought. Eventually they found the cozy spot at 560 South Broadway that had previously housed a Greek restaurant and a prepared-meal takeout kitchen, and the Chowder Room debuted in January.
The location isn’t ideal, the Steins admit; it’s just beyond the hot South Broadway strip of clubs and eateries. But customers from the nearby neighborhoods of Platt Park and West Washington Park have been finding their way there, and apartments being built near the Alameda light-rail station will bring hundreds of new residents to the area.
The Chowder Room has the homey feel of a New England fish house, but Matt says the menu reflects the West Coast, too. “The West Coast is so much more dynamic with seafood than the East Coast,” he points out. “There are more species and more openness on the menu. If you go to a restaurant in Maryland, you get crab. In Massachusetts, it’s cod.”
So even though he and Carrie grew up in New York, Matt doesn’t consider the Chowder Room a return to his roots so much as a summation of his experiences in seafood. And it’s definitely a family operation, with Carrie running the front of the house. She’d worked before in the restaurant business, then taught preschool for a time while raising three children; she considers herself a nurturer. “I try to treat our guests like they’re guests in our home,” she explains. While hosting comes naturally, she’s also catching up on other aspects of restaurant management through EatDenver, the independent-restaurant group that gives local restaurateurs a chance to network and share information.
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Matt’s experience in sourcing seafood has helped him locate good fish suppliers in Denver, which is definitely tougher than it was in Los Angeles, he says. His knowledge of what makes seafood good borders on that of a marine biologist: He can tell you when an oyster is spawning just by the texture of the flesh (and he won’t serve them in his restaurant, describing the texture as “milky and chalky”), knows that salmon that spawn in longer rivers will be richer because they store more fat for the long journey upstream, and understands that many species of fish from cold ocean waters can stand up to being shipped from the coasts to Denver since, like red meat, some larger fish need aging time (measured in days, not weeks) for the flesh to be at its best.
The Chowder Room is not a white-tablecloth restaurant. Rather than create intricate preparations or unusual flavor combinations, Matt relies on fresh ingredients and simple presentations. So blue crab, when in season, is plated with nothing more than a light dusting of flour and a lemon-butter pan sauce. The appetizer of smoked Spanish octopus is served without much fuss. “Finding the flavor of something that’s perfect and not fucking it up,” is how Matt describes the job of good chef.
After years in hectic and crowded Los Angeles, the Steins are happy to be back in Colorado. Although they still can’t take a day off without closing the restaurant, business at the Chowder Room has stabilized enough that they’re able to start planning camping trips to the mountains, where they’ll forage for mushrooms. And Matt is even thinking about one day opening a second restaurant, with an Italian seafood theme. That would be a far cry from the seafood empire he helped run in California, but for the Steins, a mom-and-pop operation is enough to keep them in the swim.