We spoke to Dave Hadley last August, just as the Chopped winner and former Preservery sous-chef was preparing to embark upon a trip abroad to Thailand. There he planned to spend two months in the kitchen at two-Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Gaggan, honing progressive Indian cooking and exploring more deeply the South Indian flavors he’d grown up on.
His trip went slightly different than planned: “The internship turned into five months instead of two,” he explains. “Working for Gaggan [Anand] opened my eyes; I saw the possibilities of things people will eat, and I learned technique, food and recipes he taught me personally. Those are stories I’ll take with me for a lifetime.”
Hadley also spent some time in the kitchen at Nahm, a high-stakes Thai restaurant that also has a Michelin star. Behind the scenes, he collaborated with other cooks from all over the world, learning what it took to really compete at the highest level of gastronomy. “I went really in-depth with the team and got an understanding of peoples’ abilities at that caliber. Those kids are the best in every country. And they’re kids. There was no chef older than 29. It was cool to see that — that Gaggan was bringing everyone together who was really hungry.”
In the midst of his adventure, Hadley also had an opportunity to spend three weeks in Kerala, exploring the Indian region where his family has roots. “When I stepped down on Indian ground, I could just smell all the things — dirt, buses, gas, pollution, food, drink,” he recalls. “I fell in love with the place — I never knew where I truly was from. This was my journey to find out. I was finding the true flavors of what I do at home. It gave me more confidence in the food I’m doing, to build on these flavors, and to see techniques of the 95-year-old grandma who is still cooking on a wood fire. It was a learning experience; it felt full-circle in finding out who I am.”
Hadley is back in Denver now, and he’s preparing to showcase what he learned via a series of pop-ups called Kallu, the first of which takes place at the RiNo outpost of Biju’s Little Curry Shop (1441 26th Street) from 6 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. this Friday and Saturday, February 23 and 24.
Kallu takes its name from a liquor fermented from coconut that’s served in Kerala’s storied toddy shops, simple establishments that serve the liquor with spicy snacks to workers, morning and night. “These places might have green and yellow walls with a fan and plastic tables, and they make maybe twelve items,” Hadley explains. “It’s a very simple room. They’re really for working Kerala people. My grandpa was that worker. He would go get drunk at the toddy shop and eat fish curry and snacks.”
Hadley is translating that model into a late-night-eats pop-up, where he’ll serve a handful of snacks that represent the cooking he learned in India. “I thought the best way possible to bring this to Denver was to bring it to the nightlife. This is not fancy fine dining; it’s quick, beautiful food — food you can eat while drinking, from flavors you might have never had before.”
At the pop-up, Hadley is planning to offer four substantial items, plus flatbread and lime soda along the lines of what you would find on the streets of Delhi. His menu includes a revamp of the samosas he was offering at the Preservery, a chile-spiced chicken dish called chicken ularthiyathu, lentil doughnuts called medhu vada, and Kerala beef, for which beef is fried crispy with chiles, coconut, lime and coriander. “It’s an ode to southern Indians — they’re the only Indians who eat beef, so they try to make a special something.”
Through the pop-up, Hadley hopes to upend conventional thinking on Indian food. “This is not curry to go — this is true authentic flavor that I hope you’re going to try and say, ‘Damn, I want that next week.’”
If all goes to plan, the chef will run at least one pop-up a month, with the aim of eventually establishing a restaurant of his own. “My true vision is that I want to be the next Hop Alley,” he says. “They’re doing regional Chinese food with American flare and creating an experience for everyone there. So how do I level up? I want to do something where people can come in and love the food every day. They can experience Indian flavors, with maybe a little Thai fusion involved.”
Denver will have to wait for that permanent establishment, though: “I know I’m at least a year out,” he says.