"It's interesting how my hands are in everything now," muses Chad Clevenger, the chef-owner of Mel's Bar and Grill, the Greenwood Village restaurant that Mel and Janie Master opened two years ago and then sold to Clevenger, a Florida native, last year. "Before this restaurant, I could have cared less about things like the front of the house, but now that it's my place and I'm in charge, I have a whole new respect for every part of the restaurant industry."
And while Clevenger, who was named executive chef of the Coyote Cafe when he was just 25 and now, at 31, owns his own place, is happy with his career accomplishments, he admits there have been a few bumps and bruises along the way. "I wish I was busier," he laments. "But between the recession, our location and some confusion with the name of the restaurant -- people keep asking me if I'm Mel -- it's been hard, and I'm still trying to recover."
But Clevenger is pushing forward. He's created a new menu that's a mix of traditional holdover dishes from the original Mel's menu and his "own stuff, like a bacon-dusted pear and Gorgonzola fritter with a pomegranate black-pepper fluid gel," he explains. Clevenger, who makes just about everything in-house, including his corned beef, pancetta, breads, sauerkraut and even the peppermint candies, says he wants to work with "different textures and flavors and even add some molecular stuff to the menu." But nothing crazy, he insists: "I just want to be successful, and if that means having one really great restaurant in Greenwood Village where I can do all my own stuff and have people appreciate it, then that's cool."
But as Clevenger revealed to me during a recent Q & A session, he'd really like to have another restaurant. "I don't need five or six restaurants, but my new goal is to have at least two, one of which I'd definitely like to have downtown," he says. During that same conversation, Clevenger dished on Rod Stewart, dissed truffles, deflated Bobby Flay's ego and declared Denver a hot spot for Asian food.
Six words to describe your food: Seasonal, playful, fresh, refined, global and bold.
Ten words to describe you: Stubborn, confident, innovative, passionate, impatient, strange, funny, driven, respectful and determined.
Culinary inspirations: My mother and grandmothers, because they made the best scratch-made Southern food, and Mama Jewell, a woman who babysat me from the time I was a toddler. She'd put me up on the kitchen counter, and I'd bake cakes with her and eat the batter. She also made the world's sweetest tea. Come to think of it, I was a normal-sized kid until I met her. My parents went to Cancún for a week, and when they came back, I'd gained ten pounds -- and that started my love affair with food. Right. Culinary inspirations...my travels and vacations; my brother, who's totally supported me through my whole culinary career; a chef named Gary Ackerman, who was my favorite culinary school instructor; chefs Bradley Borchardt and Mark Miller; the South; "Big Curt," a great kitchen guy I knew in Florida; the Schacks, a family that owned a restaurant in Florida and taught me how important it was to work hard; my huge gut; Justin Wilson, a really animated Cajun chef who had the first cooking show I ever watched on television; my father and his crazy, weird food concoctions; Bridget, my sister-in-law, who's a great cook; Red Sage, a great cookbook about Southwestern cooking; and, most important, Kris and Adam Poling, my two best friends from Florida, who were brave enough to get the hell outta Dodge with me. Without those guys, who knows what jail cell or gravesite I'd be in?
Favorite ingredient: Tomatoes. I eat a ton of them throughout the year and use them in a variety of dishes: soups, sauces, salsas, raw in salads and on sandwiches. Hell, I once lost twenty pounds eating tomatoes as three of my six small meals a day.
Best food city in America: I've been to San Francisco and New York, and both are amazing when it comes to culture, street food, late-night spots and having the best restaurants and chefs in the world -- but in my opinion, it's ultimately the Big Apple that comes out ahead.
Favorite music to cook by: I'm a classic-rock, alternative, hip-hop kinda guy. I allow music in the kitchen, but the volume is low, it stays low, and I have to keep the circus music to a minimum. Oh, and none of that country crap. Stuff is depressing.
Most overrated ingredient: Probably truffles. Unless you're buying really expensive Alba white truffles, they're just not that special. They're too expensive and really don't have much flavor.
Most undervalued ingredient: The chile. Most people, chefs included, use chiles solely for heat, when they should be used for their different flavor profiles. They're pretty inexpensive and can be cooked and used in so many different ways other than in just salsas and green chile sauce. I've got a new chocolate cake on the menu that uses both achiote and chipotle chiles -- not because of their heat, but because of their flavors.
Favorite local ingredient: The different cheeses from Haystack Mountain are really tasty and well made. Palisade peaches and Verde Farms microgreens are also top-notch.
What's never in your kitchen? Cell phones. If I catch a cook with a cell phone in my kitchen, I'll threaten to toss it into the fryer. I never have green bell peppers, either. They're nasty.
Weirdest customer request: I once got a request from a customer who wanted a raw hunk of meat on the plate. No seasoning, nothing -- just a raw slab of beef thrown on the plate. I'm guessing it was someone that needed blood.
You're at the market; what do you always buy two of? Eggs. I make fried egg sandwiches or little omelets all the time at home.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Work clean, work quiet, ask questions if you don't know the answer, respect your team, taste your food, don't bitch and moan, and put things back where you found them because your mama doesn't work here. If you can't follow these few simple things, then peace out.
Favorite New York restaurant: Le Bernardin. I had dinner there with Mel and Janie Master, and it was just ridiculous. The service -- all French servers, all speaking French, all in suits -- was perfect, and the food was amazing, clean, balanced and not over the top. The fluke ceviche tasting still makes my mouth water, and the surf and turf of skate wing and pork belly -- wow. I can't wait to go back.
One food you detest: Egg salad is funky, no matter who makes it. Nothing can make that stuff taste good. The texture, smell and look -- all unappealing, and I really can't stand the pastiness of the egg yolks. I'm a runny-yolk kinda guy.
One food you can't live without: Whoa, that's a tough question. I have a few. Is that okay? It's a toss-up between barbecue, biscuits and gravy, and carnitas with green chile. Without all three, I'd probably have a coronary. I grew up in the South, where barbecue is a weekly thing and the biscuits and gravy are amazing -- much better than any butter-poached lobster, foie gras or filet mignon on the planet. And green chile and carnitas? What's not to love?
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: I was a personal chef in France, and one night I was cooking at a dinner party with big-name attendees like Roger Moore. All the guests had arrived, except Rod Stewart, who eventually showed up with his gorgeous wife -- a 6'4" (in heels) blonde who towered over him. Unfortunately, he had double-booked the evening and couldn't stay, but he made plans to come for dinner the next night, which was a Sunday -- a day that stores and markets in the south of France are closed. I had planned to serve Rod the same dish as the night before, which was rack of lamb, except that I wasn't sure I had enough left over. I served the first few courses, and then the lamb, which was cooked perfectly...but while everyone got a nice portion, there was none left for seconds. I start making the dessert course, and my boss buzzes me on the intercom to let me know that Mr. Stewart would like more lamb. I'm thinking how motherfucking stupid I feel -- it's Rod Stewart! -- so I took a deep breath, tried to relax and walked out to discuss dessert, but before I could speak, Rod was asking about the lamb and giving me a little shit about not having any left. He apologized for missing the dinner the night before, but I was still super-embarrassed and told him that I would never again run out of lamb.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Adventurous diners. We'll never be a top food city unless the diners here start eating more than meat and potatoes. Experience something new, expand your palate and enjoy it.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Chefs with less attitude and ego. I think there are some chefs here that should just shut up and cook. Stop bragging and let your food speak for itself.
Culinary speaking, Denver has the best: Straight-up Asian food. All of the pho restaurants, Korean barbecue joints and Vietnamese places like New Saigon make Denver one of the best cities, behind San Francisco and New York, to grub Asian cuisine.
Denver has the worst: Barbecue. It's totally my thing, and I think I've tried most of the places in town and maybe two are decent -- I like Big Hoss and Brickyard BBQ. Denver also needs a better market or store that caters to all types of cuisine and ingredients -- something like Central Market in Texas. That place makes Whole Foods look like a 7-Eleven.
Favorite cookbooks: Alain Ducasse's Flavors of France; Diana Kennedy's Essential Cuisines of Mexico; Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen; Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook, by Alfred Portale, all the Jean-Georges cookbooks, anything by Michel Richard, the chef at Citronelle, and I also like James Peterson's stuff.... The list goes on and on.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? Candid Camera in the Kitchen.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: My uncle Garthel's barbecued squirrel and possum. Talk about true culinary adventure.
Current Denver culinary genius: Ian Kleinman and Troy Guard for having the balls to push the envelope with new styles of cuisine in Denver. On a conceptual/restaurateur basis, it's Matt Selby. Conceptually, I think he's a genius. He's got two great restaurants that stand alone in their own categories, and both are very successful.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Some type of cured pork, like guanciale, ricotta, grilled arugula, a little chile flake, lots of mozzarella and shaved Parmesan. You're making an omelet. What's in it? It has to be soft and a little runny, and I like it with chives, goat cheese or Époisses and salt and pepper. It's simple, but oh, so good.
After-work hangout: My casa, watching TV and relaxing, and occasionally Sancho's Broken Arrow.
Favorite Denver restaurant other than your own: Fruition for upscale dining and El Taco de México for my taco fix of tongue, carnitas and cheek.
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Favorite celebrity chef: David Kinch, who owns my favorite restaurant, Manresa, a two-star Michelin in Los Gatos, California. He keeps his mouth shut and cooks, plus his food is amazing and he has his own biodynamic farm. He's a rock star.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Bobby Flay annoys me. He's just obnoxious and always about me, me, me. He thinks his food is great and his shit don't stink.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Your cooks represent your food as much as you do. It doesn't matter who's cooking, because the blame ultimately rests on my shoulders. If I have a mediocre cook who can't prepare a piece of fish, then it looks like I can't prepare a piece of fish.
What's next for you? My goal -- my dream -- was to own a restaurant by the time I was thirty, and in a sense I accomplished that because I bought Mel's in July 2008. But Mel's name is still on the sign, and I want a place downtown where I can do my own food, in my own restaurant -- something new to Denver, or at least a better version of it. I would love to do Spanish food, a late-night tapas joint that opened at 10 p.m. and closed at 10 a.m., or a gastropub -- a real gastropub like the Spotted Pig, with really good food and a good beer selection. I'd love to do a taco spot, too, with dollar tacos. I could make my fortune that way.