Kelly Whitaker's restaurant projects are rarely easy to define. His first eatery, Basta, may have started out as a simple pizzeria, but it soon morphed into a full wood-fired Italian joint where slow-fermented bread and pizza dough are made from house-milled heritage grains, Asian ingredients sneak onto the menu, and the wine list includes an "orange" section. And the Wolf's Tailor, which Whitaker opened last summer in Sunnyside, goes even further, incorporating Japanese pickling methods, Italian pasta and live-fire grilling, roasting and baking. A little confusing, perhaps, but not once you sit down and eat — which is apparently what the folks at the James Beard Foundation did, finding the food and mission compelling enough to earn Whitaker a nomination for Best Chef: Southwest this year.
But a James Beard nomination doesn't necessarily translate into instant success; Whitaker's new collaboration with baker Jeb Breakell (who received a JBF nomination of his own), Dry Storage, in the same housing complex as Basta, has been a little slow to catch on in Boulder, the chef explains. But then, there's no easy sales pitch for a cafe that serves cucumber sandwiches, onigiri, French brown-butter teacakes made with nixtamalized corn, housemade cereal and natural wines.
And now Whitaker is launching a similar operation in a new retail conglomeration called Free Market, where the Celtic Tavern once sold pint after pint of Irish stout at 18th and Blake streets. Free Market itself isn't tricky to understand, unless you start with the company's own description: an "ever-evolving collective that develops and markets curated products, services and experiences by combining incubator strategy with artistic understanding and infrastructure strength." Translated, it's a bunch of small shops where you can buy clothes, shoes or beauty products, for example, or get a haircut — only the shop where you bought that cool cowboy hat might not be there next time you go, because of that "incubator" thing.
Whitaker's part in the project is actually twofold: Already up and running is a coffee counter called BØH, for back-of-house, which opens onto the Dairy Block's refurbished alley, and soon to open is its sibling, Brutø, a counter-service lunch and dinner spot with a dome oven as its focal point. "Brutø is Spanish for "stupid," the restaurateur points out. "It's slangy and means 'raw' or 'crude,' but with a little bit of rebellion." The funny ø, by the way, represents the Italian ØØ flour prized for pizza and bread doughs.
At BØH, you'll find baked goods from Dry Storage and coffee from Devoción, a "fourth-wave" coffee company from Colombia with cafes and product placement in New York City's hottest neighborhoods and restaurants. There's also a small prep kitchen where Whitaker plans to host guest chefs and other culinary artisans for special events.
Brutø will be open in the next two weeks or so, serving fresh-baked breads made from flours milled on site, raw-bar dishes that will include raw vegetable preparations in addition to seafood, and other wood-fired dishes that have become part of Whitaker's repertoire. "I'm one block from the farmers' market — intentionally," the chef points out. "We're working with suppliers to provide Colorado-grown vegetables year-round, even in the winter."
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Brutø's setup is closer to an exhibition kitchen than a fast-casual counter, and Whitaker says it's a great space for cooking demonstrations and other events. A liquor license is on its way, too, so Free Market customers can stop in for a drink to go with sourdough flatbread cooked to order in under a minute.
Whitaker says he never thought he'd open a place in the heart of downtown. "I don't want to do what other people do," he notes. "But in a retail hall, there are people I would never otherwise reach."
Free Market and BØH are now open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. On Saturday, May 18, the market is throwing a grand-opening celebration, and on Sunday, May 19, you can get a preview of Brutø with a vinyl brunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Never one to take the easy route, Whitaker will offer a brunch that comprises okonomiyaki (Japanese omelet/pancake hybrids) and toasts made on bread from Dry Storage.