Denver isn’t the one-horse steakhouse town it used to be. But excitement over this city’s culinary coming of age didn’t make it any easier for Dan Kane to handle the closure of Sullivan’s Steakhouse a year ago. “It was emotional, standing in an empty kitchen — no equipment, no nothing,” he recalls. Now executive chef at sibling concept Del Frisco’s Grille, Kane looks back on that experience as one of the hardest, and proudest, moments of his career. “To look at all the smiling faces in that time of adversity for all of us made me proud to be a part of this team,” he says. But there was another moment that made him even prouder, and it came when Kane did something that his mom — like all moms — probably thought she’d never see. What was it? Keep reading to find out.
Westword: Sullivan’s closed in May 2015, after more than fifteen years in LoDo. Then in November, Del Frisco’s Grille opened in Cherry Creek. What makes Del Frisco’s Grille the right concept for Denver right now?
Dan Kane: We are an anytime-eats, upscale-casual spot with an upbeat, sexy and relaxed vibe that fits this neighborhood — where everybody wants to see and be seen — perfectly. We serve takes on classic comfort food designed and built for sharing, indulging and enjoying, bringing our guests back in again and again. While we do offer some of the best steaks in the area, we want everyone to know we have so much more.
As executive chef at a chain with twenty locations, do you have any latitude to change the menu? Are there menu items unique to Denver?
I have the freedom to run daily, weekly and monthly features based on what I like, what looks good and what my guests like, and if any of my features are received extremely well, they can be considered for permanent addition to the menu.
Tell us about the in-house dry-aging program, and why it makes a difference over the wet aging.
The difference between dry and wet age is as follows: For dry aging, whole sides of beef or primal cuts are hung in open air at a temperature just above freezing and left to age for several weeks. Not only are the enzymes working on the muscle tissues during this time, but the meat is also slowly dehydrating. This concentrates the meat and changes the texture and flavor. The benefit of this process is very tender meat with an intense flavor. Wet aging is a relatively recent technique that developed along with advances in plastics and refrigeration. In this process, cuts of beef are vacuum-sealed in plastic. The enzymes still have time to tenderize the meat enough to make it flavorful and delicious.
How long have you been in the food industry?
Twenty-two years. My first job was at a Boston Market. I started working on the serving line and doing dishes. I would watch the prep crew working all day, having fun, and I immediately became intrigued with being in a kitchen. It was like love at first sight: I jumped in and haven’t looked back since.
You have a degree from the Colorado Institute of Art. Tell us about that, and how it helps you in your current career.
I have a bachelor of arts in history from Indiana University in Bloomington (go, Hoosiers!) and I have an applied-science degree in culinary arts from the Colorado Institute of Art. My degree in history gives me a great understanding of gastronomic history and a vision of where we will be going in the future. My culinary-arts degree gave me the basics I needed to be able to execute flawlessly in the kitchen.
Why did you decide to start cooking?
I’m sure it’s probably a little cliché, but I remember making dinner with my mom as a kid and making holiday meals with my grandmothers when they would visit. The smells, the fun, the quality time spent together learning and teaching. This is what led me to cooking.
What’s your earliest food memory?
Making chicken soup and matzoh balls with my grandmothers for Passover. My mom’s mom would always make the chicken soup. However, when it came to the balls, there was a family division. My mom’s mom would make matzoh balls like clouds. They would float above the soup. My dad’s mom would make them so hard and dense you would need a steak knife to cut them. My father and I preferred the hard ones, while my mom and brother preferred the light and fluffy ones. As all grandmothers only want their grandchildren to be happy, we would always have both!
What’s a career highlight?
That’s a tough one. The first one I can think of was my first visit to my parents after I graduated from culinary school. I landed my first job out of school at Dandelion in Boulder, Kevin Taylor’s famed restaurant. So I go visit my parents and make dinner for them — seared salmon with fresh salsa and roasted vegetables. I know, it seems simple, especially for a culinary-school graduate who works at a fine-dining restaurant. I finished the meal with an apple pie, all from scratch, including the crust, with a beautiful lattice top. Then, when we were all done, my parents’ biggest surprise wasn’t just that I had made a simple, delicious, comforting meal executed to perfection, but that the entire kitchen was spotless. I don’t think before or since then that I have seen my mom so happy and proud.
Have you ever mentored anyone, and if so, what did you try to impress upon him or her?
I have had the pleasure of mentoring and promoting so many people throughout my career so far. Teaching is a big reason that I enjoy this profession so much. The biggest things I try to impress upon anyone are to lead by example, and do anything and everything in the kitchen so your entire crew knows you will do anything to be successful. Also, listen first. You have to understand to be understood. (I’m not sure who said that originally.)
You’re also a certified sommelier. What led you to pursue that training?
My thirst for knowledge. I believe to be the best at your craft, you have to know as much as possible about all of it. I have a solid understanding of wine, which lends itself to making wonderful flavor combinations, whether through recipes and dishes or meal pairings. It also has helped a great deal in developing my palate.
Biggest flop you’ve ever served, and why it failed:
Easy: herb-crusted Chilean sea bass, served atop purple Peruvian wasabi-mashed potatoes, topped with crispy fried ginger and a vanilla-bean beurre blanc. It sounded interesting at the time, but it was too sweet, and the flavors didn’t mesh like I thought they would in my head. It was also the first and last time I put mashed potatoes on the same plate with fish. The texture was not a good match.
Guilty pleasure in terms of food:
I love the McRib at McDonald’s. Whenever it comes around, I eat three a day. I know a lot of people can’t believe that a chef would eat it, but I love it. It reminds me of home.
Have you ever eaten anything so bad you had to spit it out?
Yes, I have. However, I am not going to say what. As a chef, that is the worst thing that can happen to you, and I am not going to embarrass anyone who may read this article.
What’s a restaurant that you think deserves more attention than it’s currently getting?
Solera, at Colfax and Grape. Chef Goose Sorensen does an excellent job with a daily-evolving menu based on Spanish farmhouse comfort food done right. It has the best paella around, and a wide variety of tapas.
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Do you have time to cook at home? If so, do you have a go-to dish?
When I do have time to cook at home, I love to make lasagna. Growing up, my mom’s lasagna was my favorite. That’s what I wanted every birthday meal. I still use her recipe. The only change I have made is using different sausages. Nothing beats my mom’s lasagna.
Best tip for a home cook:
Wear a shirt when cooking bacon.
Del Frisco’s Grille is located at 100 St. Paul Street, #140. For more information, call 303-320-8529 or go to