Restaurateur Alan Zizmor closed Hideaway Kitchen + Bar in Genesee last winter for a makeover, reopening in April with not just a new look, but also a new chef: the young but seasoned Nick Shankland. The chef, who has done time in some of Denver’s top kitchens, quickly installed a menu comprising mostly small plates pulling from a wide array of influences — Italy, Thailand, the Deep South — and his own curiosity and imagination.
Shankland came to Denver a little more than five years ago from Virginia, where he grew up in the Newport News area and attended college at Virginia Tech, studying architecture and psychology. When he was 21, he took a job as a dishwasher to make some extra money, found himself drawn into the kitchen, and never looked back. “I didn’t want to start in the kitchen, but I fell in love with it,” he recalls.
He soon moved to Denver for a change of pace and began learning from chefs in this city’s surging restaurant scene, doing stints at Old Major and Central Bistro & Bar. At Colt & Gray, he learned about charcuterie from chef-owner Nelson Perkins and sous-chef Kyle Foster. After chef/restaurateur Duy Pham left Epernay, in early 2014, Shankland landed the executive-chef role there and eventually met Pham, who still visited the clubby space downtown while planning his new restaurant, Parker Garage, in the south suburbs.
“He’d come in and critique the hell out of my food,” Shankland says. But Pham must have seen something in the young chef, because he hired him when he was ready to open Parker Garage. Being part of a restaurant buildout was a new experience for Shankland, and a great opportunity to learn from a restaurant veteran with multiple openings under his belt. Shankland wanted to develop his own style while also aiming to be more than “just a cook with too many extravagant ideas,” he says.
And he didn’t stop learning on his days off. “With what little money I had left, I’d buy food to practice with at home,” he recalls. Books play a big role in his continuing culinary education. “There’s definitely a foundation I have to have — all chefs should have — before experimenting,” he explains. “Right now, The Flavor Bible is my main source of inspiration.”
When he heard about the Hideaway Kitchen opening, Shankland thought it was time to put all he’d learned to work. After Zizmor gave him the job, he designed a menu that balances his ideas of dining out with the needs of neighbors and regular customers at the Hideaway, which is tucked away in the corner of a shopping center just off Interstate 70 at Genesee.
“His input was very valuable to me,” he says of Zizmor. “We started by thinking about how we like to eat.” Shankland, for example, likes to go out with friends who encourage each other to try new things. “We can be very boring as individuals,” he notes. “I know I can. A group of people will be more willing to experiment.”
The new menu at Hideaway is divided into four sections: veg, sea, farm and comfort. The comfort section features six entree-sized selections for customers looking for a more traditional restaurant experience, but the other three feature shareable small plates ranging from baba ghanoush with naan baked in-house to a calamari, prosciutto and cantaloupe salad to a sampling of three housemade sausages. The dishes are a balance of what Shankland calls “comfort and familiarity with New American. There are no real ethnic boundaries with what I’m cooking,” he says. But he keeps his imaginative side in check by concentrating on what he’s learned from successful chefs: “Common sense. That got beat into me at every restaurant I’ve worked at.”
On the comfort end, the chef cites his fried chicken-breast pâté dish, which takes its inspiration from chicken nuggets and french fries. Shankland prepares chicken-breast forcemeat, steams it and tempura-fries it in bite-sized pieces, resulting in a juicy, flavorful center surrounded by a light breading. Instead of fries, he creates spherical mashed-potato croquettes with centers of housemade ketchup. It’s a dish that’s at once playful, homey and evocative.
But even down-home food like the mashed potatoes he uses for his croquettes starts with culinary technique. Rather than mashing or whipping the potatoes (which he says releases too much starch), Shankland presses cooked potatoes through a fine mesh and then finishes them with butter and cream to order. The mashed potatoes also show up — tinged with saffron and sweet corn — alongside a petite ribeye on the farm section of the menu.
Working at two restaurants on the fringe of the metro area, Shankland has discovered that recruiting in the suburbs is definitely a challenge. But he landed a sous-chef with experience in a Michelin-starred kitchen in Switzerland and a line lead from Tampa Bay, whose style he describes as “dirty Southern.” The crew is having fun playing around with Southern traditions, most notably with the half rack of pork ribs on the comfort menu. “It combines my love of barbecue with a big screw-you to tradition,” Shankland explains. The ribs are St. Louis-cut, rested overnight with a house rub, and then braised in red wine and aromatics before getting a turn in the smoker to finish. He uses the braising liquid to build a barbecue sauce that also includes enough mustard to conjure the flavor of Carolina barbecue sauce from the area not too far from his home town.
Shankland continues to build his culinary skills by challenging himself off the job, shopping at Viet Hoa supermarket or H Mart to bring home new ingredients with which to practice. But if he’s just feeding himself, a “massive charcuterie board” built from cheese, cured meats and fruit is his go-to meal. When he goes out for dinner, he likes Brazen: “It’s the way I like to eat,” he explains, adding that the vibe there is similar to that of the Hideaway: a menu of shareable plates, an intimate dining room and a big outdoor patio tucked into a strip mall. He also hits the places where he used to work and says that Ste. Ellie, beneath Colt & Gray, is one of his favorites.
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Zizmor and Shankland share a goal of building something “bigger than a neighborhood restaurant without alienating the neighborhood,” Zizmor says. “The trick is to try and mold the two: an urban feel with mountain appeal. We’re the gateway to all of that.”
And he’s watched his new chef ushering customers through that gateway. “He’s accomplished a lot in a short period of time,” Zizmor concludes. “They really want us to succeed.”