"Nothing that goes on my menus gets there by accident," insists Sean Kelly, executive chef of LoHi SteakBar, the packed-to-the-rafters restaurant and watering hole that opened in June in Highland. "I have a tendency to make sure that everything is researched, and I try to be as true as possible to the classics and their culture. I want to understand where my food comes from."
Kelly, who made a major name for himself when he opened Aubergine Cafe (in the location that's now Mizuna), a highly successful restaurant that he followed with Clair de Lune and then, in the same space, Somethin' Else (in the location that's now Fruition), is one of Denver's most respected chefs, a twenty-year veteran on Denver's food front and a guy who doesn't get off on the pomp and circumstance of publicity. His last gig was sitting tall on the corporate chef ladder of the Little Pub Company -- an outfit that operates more than a dozen Denver restaurants and bars -- where Kelly kicked back behind the scenes and just did his thing. He's never been the kind of chef to demand the spotlight.
But diners have never stopped paying attention to the 47-year-old Jersey boy, who's about to embark on another project: Ernie's Bar and Pizzeria in Sunnyside. The name has historic ties to the area, specifically to the exact restaurant where Kelly will soon be tossing New York-style pizzas. "From the 1930s to the 1960s, the restaurant was actually called Ernie's, and we wanted to evoke the past and extend an olive branch to the old neighborhood, so we thought we'd call the place Ernie's," explains Kelly. "Back in the day, it was apparently a real social spot in the neighborhood, and that's what we'd like for Ernie's to be now, too." And with a forty-seat bar, thirty beers, big pizzas, a beer hall, pool tables and Skeeball, as well as Kelly at the helm, it's likely to be just that.
Forcing him to take a break from creating menus and hiring a new kitchen staff, I recently sat down with Kelly at LoHi, where he took issue with America's obsession with foie gras, talked about his passion for Palacios hot chorizo, argued that servers need to adhere to higher standards and wondered aloud why Denver diners don't eat more dessert.
Six words to describe your food: It's what it's supposed to be.
Six more words to describe your food: True, straightforward, traditional, pure, consistent and accessible.
Culinary inspirations: A great pizza man in New Jersey named Valentine Ciambrone, an honorable, generous man who made a pizza so good and consistent that it elevated three generations of his family to a much better life than he had ever known. I never eat a slice of pizza without thinking about him, and I never make a pizza without retracing all of his lessons.
Proudest moment as a chef: I have been blessed with many proud moments throughout my career, but when the New York Times calls your cooking "nearly flawless," you can stop wondering.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I am not big on rules, per se. If I have to spoon-feed you a list of rules, then you aren't intelligent enough to be in my kitchen to begin with. I spend a lot of time in my kitchen, and I set the tone every day. I hire people who are serious and professional; I don't suffer fools, and I despise drama. I like people who are committed to their craft. A quiet, serious cook is a focused cook, and I work with those cooks the best, regardless of the position they have in my kitchen.
Favorite ingredient: No ingredient has found its way into more of my recipes during the last few years than pimento, a Spanish paprika. I'm crazy for the flavor of it in -- or on -- all things. It provides a little heat coupled with a nice smoky background.
Most overrated ingredient: Foie gras. It's drawn so much attention, and I don't quite understand it. Obviously, I've eaten it and I even like it sometimes -- and I believe it has its place at the table -- but for a long time, it was considered a delicacy, save for the most festive times in Europe. Then America gets hold of it, tastes it, decides it's good, and the next thing you know, we're mass-producing it like bubble gum. You can't systemically do that to a living, breathing being and think it's okay. We have a way of demonically overdoing it with our crazy mass-produced trends in this country.
Most undervalued ingredient: Water, because you can't do very much without it, and in a hundred years, we may very well fight wars for it.
Favorite local ingredient: I can't think of a bigger local success story than Haystack Mountain goat cheese. They've become one of the best cheese companies in the country, and chefs all along the Front Range have helped to propel that success. I love all of their cheeses, especially the Queso de Mano, a great goat's-milk cheese.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: I have dear friends and bitter enemies who I've worked with and who've worked for me, and they will all tell you -- correctly -- that I embarrass myself almost daily. My most embarrassing moments are usually because I mishandle a situation -- because I put my foot in my mouth -- and I swear that happens every day.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: We don't need more restaurants; we need the restaurants we have to be better. And by that I mean that there's a disconnect between the front of the house and the kitchen. You can't last long in the kitchen if you're a phony-baloney, but you can be a phony-baloney and make a career as a server. I just wish that there were higher standards for servers.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: If every chain restaurant (except Chipotle) were to burn to the ground tonight, I wouldn't be the least bit sad -- and the city would be no worse for it. At best, these publicly held conglomerates are peddling mediocrity.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the best: I think we've made huge strides, at least in the twenty years I've been here, and I've seen huge improvements across the culinary board, but I wouldn't go so far as to say we have the best of anything.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the worst: Appreciation for desserts. We're so health-conscious here, and because of that, people just don't eat desserts -- or if they do, they always split them. In turn, that's eroded the demand for good pastry chefs in Denver.
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Current Denver culinary genius: There are a lot of shining stars on the Denver dining scene, but my schedule and wallet don't permit me to go out and see them all...but the conversation can't happen without Frank Bonanno being in it. He's building an empire, and all of his places are maintaining very high standards, which is very difficult to do. I also have the utmost respect for the refined culinary genius of John Broening. He's the best chef in Colorado, on point with everything he does in the kitchen and a total class act.
What do you always buy two of? Palacios hot chorizo. I get it at Marczyk's. It's so fatty and so bad for you, but I can't stop eating it. Actually, I've made a rule to myself that I can only eat it during football season. Life is good right now.
What's next for you? Pizza at Ernie's Bar and Pizzeria, our new restaurant in Sunnyside. I want to get Ernie's working, find a balance between running both businesses and then try to settle back into the routine of a normal life.
To read part two of my interview with Sean Kelly, check back here tomorrow.