I’m a firm believer in the culinary arts as the ultimate art form, because you can touch all five senses,” says Chris Jakubiec, executive chef of Fire and culinary director for the Art Hotel, which is scheduled to open in mid-June. That’s a smart approach, since the hotel is only a block from the Denver Art Museum and will feature pieces from prominent contemporary artists throughout the lobby, restaurant and outdoor spaces.
Jakubiec just moved with his wife to Denver from Washington, D.C., to oversee Fire’s opening, but he had already decided to come to Colorado before he got the job. After two years in the nation’s capital, he was tired of “the undercurrents of the whole power scene,” he explains. “I got some advice from a friend: ‘You need to work in the market you want to stay in.’ I started looking up the best places to live, work, start a business, have a family.”
Those places included northern California, North Carolina and some smaller cities in Florida. He had no interest in Florida, and his wife helped him eliminate North Carolina — it was just too far from her family in Los Angeles. But Denver kept coming up as one of the top cities for both new restaurants and a quality lifestyle. So Jakubiec began looking for jobs here — just as the Art Hotel was hiring for its executive-chef position. It turned out to be an ideal fit, since Jakubiec had spent the better part of his career working his way up the ranks at restaurants associated with boutique hotels.
Cooking professionally wasn’t always on his radar, though. He grew up on the East Coast, the son and grandson of dentists. And while he inherited a love of cooking from his mother and grandmothers — he remembers one grandmother bringing him cookies on special occasions when he was a toddler — once out of high school, he set his sights on a degree in biological sciences at the University of Vermont, with a long-term goal of following in his father’s footsteps. But after three semesters, he realized dentistry wasn’t for him: “I asked myself, ‘Do I really want to spend the rest of my life looking into people’s mouths?’” he recalls.
So he left school and took his first kitchen job at a seasonal restaurant in Burlington, Vermont. From there, he moved on to a vegan restaurant in Connecticut, a small place with only sixty seats. “Working without eggs, butter or cream is difficult,” he notes, especially when it comes to desserts, since he’s a pastry traditionalist with a sweet tooth and a chocolate addiction.
Eventually, Jakubiec realized that he needed to go to culinary school to enhance the knowledge he’d gained from experience. “I was doing the same things for so long without knowing why,” he says. So he attended the French Culinary Institute in New York City — and had a job lined up the day after he graduated. One of his first immersions into the world of boutique-hotel restaurants was at Ian Schrager’s Royalton Hotel, a big name at the beginning of New York’s boutique-hotel craze. There he cooked under a series of Michelin-starred guest chefs from France, who each took over the kitchen for a month. “It was hard-core,” he says. “I’d never seen such discipline.”
One of those chefs was Marc Meneau, from the three-star L’Espérance, who created a dish of poached bass, cauliflower, clams and hazelnut foam that changed Jakubiec’s way of looking at food. “I realized that what you put on the plate can be so much more than what you taste. The texture of that foam was like sea foam, with the flavor of hazelnut,” he recalls, adding that Meneau’s sous “was by far the best cook I’ve ever met. He did an old-school foie gras and asparagus en croute that was just incredible. Plus he was a really nice guy, which is really saying something, because he was French.”
Those early posts led to jobs at the Blue Door in Miami’s Delano Hotel under Claude Troisgros and at Troisgros’s Brazilian-influenced Caviar & Banana in New York, and eventually to an executive-sous-chef slot under Damon Gordon for the opening of the Ivy Hotel in San Diego. Jakubiec met his future wife in California, but after two years, Gordon tapped him to help open another boutique hotel, the Jefferson, in D.C.
Jakubiec’s dedication to the rigorous and regimented technique that he had learned in cooking school, reinforced by numerous French chefs (he also worked under Alain Ducasse for a time in New York City), eventually earned him the executive-chef position at the Jefferson’s posh restaurant, Plume. “While I was exec, we went from four to five stars,” he says of the prestigious Forbes Travel Guide program. “I didn’t know what to say — I was blown away.”
Plume’s clientele included some of D.C.’s top dignitaries, including President Barack Obama, who held several fundraisers and a famous 2013 bipartisan dinner with Senate Republicans at the hotel during Jakubiec’s tenure. “When I moved to D.C. — you don’t think you’re going to meet the president,” he says. “We ended up dealing with the Secret Service, doing sweeps of the kitchen with dogs.”
But while he got to shake hands with Obama, he wasn’t comfortable glad-handing with other politicians and celebrities who frequented the hotel. “I’ve always had the mindset that the chef should be in the kitchen,” Jakubiec says. “If something goes wrong with the food and the chef is out in the dining room, you know what the problem is.”
Ultimately, Plume proved too stuffy for Jakubiec, even though he appreciated the quality of the ingredients he was able to work with and the high level of food that he and his staff were turning out. “I left the Jefferson and said I needed at least a couple of months to evaluate,” he explains — and that’s how he found his way to Denver.
In the two months since they arrived here, he and his wife have settled into a new home (coincidentally, near the corner of Washington Street and Virginia Avenue) and checked out a little of the local restaurant scene. (Jakubiec says he’s been impressed with Devil’s Food, Sushi Den and Mercantile Dining & Provision so far.) But mostly he’s been buried in the details of setting up a new kitchen, hiring staff and planning a menu with a whole new world of ingredients from which to choose. His plans for Fire include sourcing Colorado meats and produce when possible — Jakubiec hates the term “farm-to-table,” but points out that the highest-quality ingredients rarely spend time on cross-country truck routes — and hitting multiple senses in a single plate, a concept he learned from his French mentors. Since this is Colorado, though, he’ll do so in a more relaxed setting, one that allows guests to have an entertaining experience. “I’m a believer in almost forcing interaction between the server and guest,” he explains, and he’s fond of tableside preparations that add an extra dimension to service.
But that kind of service requires extensive training — for chefs and staff alike. “You have to go back in time to when [cooking] wasn’t second nature and re-teach yourself before you can teach someone else,” Jakubiec says. While a chef can perfect a dish and re-create it over and over, “the bigger question is, can you get a whole staff to replicate it? I don’t believe in keeping recipes or techniques secret. That doesn’t benefit the industry.”
So hiring is not so much about finding cooks with years of experience as it is finding those willing to put in the effort to learn. “Give me eight hours of 100 percent attention, and don’t cut corners — because I’m going to notice,” Jakubiec promises.
There will certainly be plenty to notice at the Art Hotel. The restaurant will have a dramatic backdrop for dining, with towering glass walls providing views of Broadway, downtown and the mountains. A collection of sculptures, hanging installations and wall-sized paintings will compete for attention with Jakubiec’s menu. But he’s confident that his mentors gave him the necessary tools to create food as impressive as Fire’s surroundings. “It doesn’t matter if it’s just a grilled cheese sandwich; you can make it the best grilled cheese you’ve ever had,” he says, citing a lesson he learned from the chef he still respectfully refers to as “Mr. Ducasse.”
With museums full of masterpieces so close at hand, it will be fun to experience the creations of the newest artist on the block.