1996. The Avs won the Stanley Cup. I was new to Denver and cooking at a little fish house named Jax that had just opened in LoDo, a then-sketchy part of downtown that was finally starting to come around. Everyone went to the ’Koop after work to shoot stick and drink beers. The Wynkoop Brewing Company, the Cruise Room and the Wazee Supper Club weren’t only the best options, they were the only ones within striking distance of work. The train station was the literal end of the line for all safe activity in the city. There was no such thing as the Denver Skate Park; late-night skate sessions were at Skyline, Tabor, Civic Center Station, outside the old Auditorium Theater or on the library benches. And as I found out within 72 hours of arriving in Denver, like cutting a rug in the iconic ’80s flick Footloose, you could be arrested for skateboarding.
In 1998, the Broncos won the Super Bowl; from the rooftop of Jax, I watched the Lombardi Trophy glint its illustrious, iconic self within fifty feet of my nose as the celebratory parade marched its way up 17th Street. By now, serving rare tuna and raw oysters had created a cult-like following, and Jax joined restaurants such as the Fourth Story, Chives, Mel’s, Starfish, Tante Louise, Rue Claire and Zenith (all gone now) in breaking boundaries and setting the tone for a new generation of passionate culinarians to do their thing. Chefs like Matt Selby, Tyler Wiard, Sean Yontz, Duy Pham, Brian Laird, Goose Sorensen and Jen Jasinksi were all baby-faced and figuring it out along the way. Some of those names are still commanding kitchens, while others are out of restaurants entirely; one is fishing while another moved out West, never to be heard from again. We were blazing a path first set by the likes of Dave Query, Cliff Young, Mel Master and Kevin Taylor, living life to its fullest. In turn, from our kitchens came names like Brandon Foster, Justin Brunson, Sheila Lucero, Kevin Grossi, Brandon Biederman, Amos Watts, Max MacKissock, Dan Kern, Duane Walker, James Rugile, Blake Edmunds and countless other fierce talents. Their raw passion and talent fed the engine that powered the whole machine. For more fuel, Kevin Morrison was delivering the finest herbs and tomatoes available from the back of his beater Isuzu Trooper well before he was crafting sandwiches at Spicy Pickle or slinging tacos at Pinche. Denargo Market was the closest place for farm-fresh produce; microgreens hadn’t entered the lexicon.
From there, the dining scene you see today took shape. Phenomenal humans like Keegan Gerhard and Lisa Bailey, Troy Guard, Alex Seidel, Jeff Osaka and Enrique Socarras were soon added to the mix; there was no equation, and we created brands for ourselves by hustling, working every event and doing every dinner, and we worked that shit to the bone. When there wasn’t a gig, we created our own with dinners for every reason and a few for no reason at all. Together, we started throwing bacchanalian underground dinners called 50 Top, before the term pop-up was even a glint in anyone’s eye. Dinners held in random locations throughout the city brought together the dining community the best way chefs know how: at a big-ass table with more food and drink than you can possibly comprehend. The overall plan was simple: Get people dining out, associate our names with our food and restaurants, and stake our claim. And we did it together. We hashed out plans and then unconditionally supported each other’s every endeavor. That esprit de corps lives on today.
2018. I no longer skate enough to consider myself a skater, and I have no fewer than five pairs of Walgreens-grade readers. Skating and cooking have had a very synonymous significance in my life; I’m still working with food and people, but in a much different capacity in order to facilitate a much more sustainable home life and level of sanity. The grocery business and Marczyk Fine Foods have been my salvation. The chaos of the ever-changing restaurant world burned me out, or I allowed it to do so, all while hardworking, talented chefs like Jasinski, Seidel, Guard and Paul C. Reilly pushed on to build empires. Meanwhile, communal destination spaces are providing new entrepreneurs with venues where they can practice their craft without the need for four walls of their own. Altius Farms is growing greens on a rooftop just outside of downtown, and is able to supply everyone with truly local ingredients. Lucero, my hero, keeps Jax going and has spoken twice in front of Congress about the sustainability of our oceans. Denver has two James Beard award winners and more talent per square acre than any other piece of land between the coasts.
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It’s all coming together quite nicely. This gumbo of high plains desert and Rocky Mountain fortitude mixed with a dash of ingenuity and a heaping helping of badassery is churning out incredibly indelible concepts. Denver and its diners continue to be generous in their contributions to the cause. But where will it all lead?
This city has been great to me, and I’m thankful beyond words. Here I staked my claim, dug in and made my way through bad habits and manic hours to sustainable farming practices and plant-based diets. I’ll see it through the abomination that is Beyond Meat and the brilliance that is our burgeoning farmers’ market scene.
And along the way, I’ll answer your questions and consider some of the big issues in today’s scene. Do Denver chefs still support one another, or has the saturation of restaurants turned the culture into more of a competition? What’s the next “thing,” and who’s going to lead the charge? Why did chefs trade long-sleeve coats for hot-ass leather aprons and T-shirts, and who the hell decided that tattoos and beards were the new uniform? How can we make staffing less difficult and more pleasurable than pulling teeth? Did Instagram ruin cheffing by providing a format for beautiful photos of ostensibly un-servable dishes? And how is fine dining really worth the uncomfortable clothes and big tab when you can get world-class food from a truck?
After twenty years in restaurant kitchens, Jamey Fader is now culinary director for Marczyk Fine Foods. But he’s still stirring the pot, and will answer your culinary questions in his weekly column for Westword. Have a question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.