Chef Kelly Whitaker, owner of Basta in Boulder, recalls sleeping on the floor of a pizza restaurant in Campagna, Italy, where he studied the traditional craft of cooking with a wood-burning oven. That experience has shaped his career, lending Basta its theme and centerpiece; inspiring his second project, pizza and oyster bar Cart-Driver; and serving as the focus of his newest venture, Ash, a mobile kitchen he's using to present private dinners, pop-ups and small, catered events.
Whitaker and partners Erika Whitaker and Alan Henkin make up Id Est Hospitality Group; they, along with Ash partner/chef Cody Taft have been busy working to get Ash more into the public eye — so busy with this and other projects that Whitaker recently sold his stake in Cart-Driver to the remaining partners (Andrew Birkholz, Andy Niemeyer and Mark Licata). While Italian cuisine is still Whitaker's first love, he's been exploring other groundbreaking culinary centers around the world to forge a new direction with Ash. "I don't want to cook Basta food; I don't want to cook Cart-Driver food," he says of his latest endeavor.
The name Ash is derived from the letter æ — aesc or ash — used in modern Scandinavian languages, but it also symbolized the ash tree in ancient Anglo-Saxon writing.
Recent visits to Denmark, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Blue Hill at Stone Barns (chef Dan Barber's visionary New York farmhouse restaurant) have expanded Whitaker's knowledge of wood and charcoal techniques, and he's added Japanese binchotan cooking to his repertoire, though he's careful to point out that he's not delving into fusion. "I like to play by the rules," he adds.
What the chef is concentrating on now is milling heritage wheat and making dough with a wide variety of Colorado-grown grains. He's in the process of forming a nonprofit organization to study and promote older, more nutritionally complete grain varieties in conjunction with an expert at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, and is also developing plans for another restaurant.
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"We want to do meaningful projects with stories," Whitaker says. So while he'd like to launch more restaurants, he's insistent on being in the kitchen and meeting his customers rather than overextending with too many different concepts. "I want to be hands-on," he explains. "If I don't connect with the guest, then I don't have anything."
If a small restaurant on the ground floor of a Boulder apartment building and a mobile kitchen seem like enough to keep Whitaker busy, consider that he's also a regional leader for Chefs Collaborative (a chefs' educational group dedicated to improving the food system) and is a U.S. delegate for the Italian-founded Slow Food. He was also recently selected as one of fifteen chefs nationwide to attend this year's James Beard Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change. His goal in working with these groups is to help put Denver on America's culinary map, as well as to hone his own vision.
Ash will be serving food tonight from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Infinite Monkey Theorem Urban Winery, 3200 Larimer Street, and will be there every Friday through the end of August.